Wednesday, February 23, 2011

BREAKOUT Music of 2010

As the recent Grammys attested, the Arcade Fire's Best Album win aside, the recording industry is still hopelessly out of touch with the current status of the music industry - oblivious to the radical shifts in the creation, production, distribution, consumption, and scene-making of a landscape that continues to sprawl. No matter how hard all these blogs and critics try to map it, navigation is futile. New genres and their own sub-genres are created weekly. Cross-cultural & genre collaboration becomes more widespread and eccentric. The music comes at us in ways post-future and post-retro. It is always impossible to find, hear, and understand everything out there that is breaking ground, but the list below documents a few of the artists & their respective albums that made big noise in 2010 (at least to these ears).

There was good to great music from established acts Kanye West, LCD Soundsytem, Cee-Lo Green, Neil Young, Sade, The Roots, Danger Mouse, Bryan Ferry, M.I.A., Massive Attack, Mark Ronson, No Age, Hot Chip, Brian Eno, Gorillaz, The Dead Weather, Daniel Lanois, MGMT, Scissor Sisters, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Gil Scott-Heron, and, of course, Arcade Fire, but all have greater work in their past. I liked aspects of b.o.b, Warpaint, Best Coast, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and a number of other acts that hit the mainstream, but I've heard all that before. Haven't caught up yet with the latest Grinderman, Erykah Badu, The-Dream, Joanna Newsom, Mavis Staples, or Big Boi records, amongst many others. Eminem hasn't done solid work in almost a decade, ditto Jay-Z. Forgot Lil Wayne & T.I. - that was 3 years ago. Rihanna is a "guilty pleasure," but she (or rather, her producers) can't hold it up over the long run.

So, I've focused on 25 acts (26 albums/eps, well 28, technically) that either emerged, fully formed, in the past year, made their name known, or saw their ambitions reach new heights. Here they are, in no particular order:

BEN FROST / By the Throat

The multi-hyphenated Icelandic artist's sublime, Area-51 excavation actually occured in '09, though it took me over a year to catch up. A sludgy mix of rock melody, doom drone, horror movie soundtracks, National Geographic source recordings, and Ligeti-esque alien choirs, Frost has discovered a whole new sonic realm - the hidden language of ancient lava bubbling up from the earth's core.

ZOLA JESUS / Stridulum EP

Are there such things as new sounds, new sonic structures?  Based on much of the evidence of Ben Frost and other artists cited on this list, I'd say...perhaps...... but not Zola Jesus.  She's a throwback to the goth-tinged vocal ambience of Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, and many other late-night chanteuses of the 1980s.  Jesus was recently lumped with Sun Araw and Infinite Body as new representatives of the punk noise renaissance resounding in LA's underground club/gallery scene, but that's not really what's happening here.  These are inevitably classic, romantic ballads ("in the end of the night, I'll hold your hand" "in the end of the night, when I can be with you") given an anachronistic spin by the witchy surround and the unsettling, near operatic range of Jesus' voice.  Pop as pop is dead, but sinister vibes counterpointed by a lush sense of life, and, on the flip side, uptempo hooks obscuring violence and depravity, are displaying the endless possibles inherent in the form.

ceo / white magic

Erik Berglund, one half of Swedish synth pop duo The Tough Alliance, uses some of the following words & references to describe his solo project - "before time was, ceo is" "ceo is the photosynthesis and an aria, it is silence and virginity lost in a gang bang" "ceo is saliva, patron, november rain and panic. it is a relief, a citrine and it is broken dreams" - none of which does FULL justice to the hypnotic jungle pop that flows through white magic - shamanistic, cool breeze dance that is the lost soundtrack to an 80s future fantasy set on a distant, pagan planet. Or rather, a psychotic acid-fueled wet dream.

MARNIE STERN / Marnie Stern

"Alternative" never really existed, but if it did (and does), Marnie Stern's breed of whatever you want to call it, could be said to be representative.  Not "indie rock," "punk," "freak folk," "post punk," "no- wave," or "power pop" - but something raw which  in its high-pitched riot-grrl fierceness (echoed to oblivion) seems to encompass elements of each and every one of those reductive catchphrases.  The bedroom landscape on the album cover is a flat plane which leads into an epic free-form world that bites off way more than Karen O can chew and spits a super-charged wad back out.  Fast, hard - it pulses with a masochistic anxiety - "I've got something in my soul - growing into something you can't change" - "I've got something in my soul - pushing me to hold onto the pain."  Stern has the same ecstatic range as Zola Jesus, but it's much lighter-footed, bouncing like a pinball off the hyperactive guitar and drums.


19-year old Tyler, the Creator, and his Hollywood teen rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA) have exploded in the past few months - going from underground mix tapes distributed free over their website to playing the Jimmy Fallon show.  Their perverted comedy can seem borderline psychotic, and their personas (Tyler references Aleister Crowley & Hitler) confuse things even more - but it's more beastie than gangsta. It's tempting to say they're at the forefront of a platinum shift in West Coast hip hop - something not seen since NWA (though it may make sense to go back to the late 70s punk underground), but that takes away the fun in anticipating what's next.  They're about to get Really big (Tyler just signed with XL), so check out this early LA Weekly article on them.

FLYING LOTUS / Cosmogramma

Low End figurehead Flying Lotus and L.A.'s most progressive artist has gone from mapping the city to interstellar travel - funk, hip-hop, avant jazz glitch grooves as journeys into the 22nd century.  There's Nostradamus and then there's music's REAL Nostradamus.  In the year's to come, this will surely be considered one of the greatest psychedelic records of all time.  Put this record on NOW - and get Lost in Space.

CEEPHAX ACID CREW / United Acid Emirates

A conglomeration of the sounds of Warp records in miniature, with a decidely Atari bent to the compressed, tape-deck mix of acid house, drum 'n bass, and hardcore techno.  As you may well have deciphered from this list, there's a decidely 80s revival underway - which is a confusing but very good thing indeed.  If Giorgio Moroder had a better sense of humor he could get along well with Ceephax.  With both these artists, its hard to tell whether you should be breakdancing or chilling out to the grooves.

CAPTAIN AHAB / The End of Irony

From the press release (all of which is true by the way) from the most under-recognized band of the LA/noise/electro pop/metal underground:
"Do you love Powermetal even though it is just for thirtysomething LARPers? Well, good for you! Shout it to the sky! Do you like shaking your ass to some Electro-Clash even though your neighbor scoffs because you forgot it’s called Nu-Rave now. Well fuck names! Do you want to cuddle in the morning sunlight to some 70’s Soft Rock, but your sweetie-pie thinks you’re making fun of him/her? Dude, making love is awesome, and sometimes being sappy isn’t a bad thing! Captain Ahab knows how you feel. They love all these criminalized sounds and many more, and they combine them in a way that irony would never permit. There is serious commitment going on here. Commitment to making epic songs that defy expectation, trends, and any sort of cool-factor. But we’re not talking about some lazy mash-up album, here. They have composed these songs from scratch. The album creates a meticulous and sweeping cosmology that would satisfy even the headiest of 70’s prog heshers. Captain Ahab is fucking committed to freeing your soul! No short cuts on this album. Is that a live guitar player? Yeah, duh! Every band has one of those. So what do you think of this live orchestra then? How about this master sitar player flown out from India to play in a room next to a guy with a modular synthesizer the size of the WOPR. These songs are the real deal, passionate and unafraid. They’re the result of Captain Ahab’s dedication to their audience. If you are ready to be set free, then your lucky day has come. All you need to do is LISTEN!"

JJ / jj nÂș 3

jj "Let Go" from aufgemischt! on Vimeo.

This Swedish vocalist kind of sounds like Enya - if Enya did covers of The Game & mixed in tropicalia, samba, jungle house, harmonicas, samples of Brazilian soccer matches and Charles Manson, and good old piano balladry. jj turns new age fairy tale electronica on its head, veering way off the map aesthetically and leading us into a dark tunnel where a voice echoes heartbreak and resignation.

SALEM / King Night

Is this the most over-hyped band of the year?  Is the whole "witch house" thing a bit of too far down the hipster path?  Is it all a joke, as some of their live performances would seem attest?  Inevitably, not that much of that matters when you crank it up loud, and are scared out of your whits by the sheer ungodliness of this black mass that defines the term "wigga."  It's ugly, mean, and it exemplifies the kind of white trash disillusionment that is fueling the bile of our country's red/blue, black/white divide.

ROBYN / Body Talk

Love Kills (...with a beat)!  The hardest working artist of 2010 - touring non-stop while releasing three mini-albums compiled into a magnum opus at the end of the year.  This is how to transition from girl-group pop puppet into mature, independent dance floor warrior, and do it with more energy and smarts than anyone else (calling Kylie Minouge!).  Robyn is no wilting flower - her feminist empowerment counters stereotyped assumptions - a tangle of strength, anguish, anger, and resilience: "Protect yourself cause you'll wreck yourself in this cold hard world - so check yourself." 


Sun-soaked distorted, crunk'd out drum machines and sexy sing-song vocals = equal the most exciting noise/pop-rock to emerge in 2010.  Gauzy static obscuring uptempo grooves, brilliant verse-chorus chants.  These are what high school fight songs sound like after the bombs have dropped.

KID CUDI / Man on the Moon II

Cudi goes all Lou Reed on this 2nd concept album, moving from the eluciadiation of his dream world in Man on the Moon I to the physical realities of cocaine addiction here. Harder guitar work and prog rock elements are brought into the smooth hippity-hop club vibes he had previously established, taking us on a journey that is more tangible, though no-less idiosyncratic than before.  It must be said that, at the end of the day, Cudi's blending of genre elements is decidedly more compelling, less ego-centric, and both weirder and more honest than mentor Kanye. 

The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night

Arcade Fire, check yourself!  This epic orchestral rock - more exciting than Smashing Pumpkins at their peak -  explodes fireworks across the Great Lakes and creates something every bit as mesmerizing as classic Jesus & Mary Chain / My Bloody Valentine, et al.

JANELLE MONAE / The ArchAndroid

The most over-produced album on this list- but it deserves every quirky turn it takes.  Monae is both future prophet and retro queen - a true alien in r&b/soul//hip-hop, and the ArchAndroid might be the most immersive, exciting, and just plain weird major-label financed science-fiction experiment since Outkast's Loveboxxx/The Love Below.

KE$HA / Animal

Gloriously stupid, craven pop. This is all Dr. Luke's show - the wet dream master of the pubescent, who has DJ'd most high school dances of the last handful of years (Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," Adam Lambert's "For Your Entertainment," etc.). Ke$ha is one of those girls who it seems would dump the pig's blood on Katy Perry's prom queen head, even though she has the telekinetic powers as well - well, glitter power, but, whatever... Also, Ke$ha is kind of proud of the slutty demeanor buried in the jubilant robo-hooks, a redact to the empowered, I'm not a fake slut, of just about everything else in this genre.  I'm not really endorsing it ... though I will dance to it like I'm dumb...

Die Antwoord / $O$


Mostly judged as a novelty act, the cult of Die Antwoord peaked way before the release of their first full-length album. Despite encountering a chorus of snores, $O$ was actually much better than it had any right to be - the sounds and words have been heard before, but it's the delivery that sends it over the top. Die Antwoord is a 360 act, a visual//sonic bag of tricks that fights back (as does Das Racist, see below) the plague self-seriousness in rap today.


RUSTIE / Sunburst EP 

CRYSTAL CASTLES / Crystal Castles 

WAVVES / King of the Beach

DAS RACIST / Sit Down, Man 

the bird and the bee / Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: 
A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates

TORO Y MOI / Causers of This

FRANK(just FRANK) / The Brutal Wave

XIU XIU /  Dear God, I Hate Myself


  1. agree with some of those.. you should listen to also....

    twin shadow, Destroyer, Toro Y Moi (new album) Cut Copy, Wild Nothing, Radio Department, Twin sister, Cornelius, Deerhunter, woods, Smith Western, Love is all, tan lines.....

    are you on Dropbox... love to share!

    Miss you man!