This post coincides with the final closure of Expert Witness, Robert Christgau’s wonderful blog, which, during its brief existence, garnered a following as dedicated and lively and acerbic as any you’ll find in cyberspace. Though I’ve only been a (semi-) working music critic since the mid-90s, I’ve read Christgau’s reviews since the early 70s, when he wrote for my hometown newspaper, and my tastes were duly affected by his opinions. Fortunately, the many people who congregated at his site in the comments section will continue on as a conversational collective in other forums, and I’m happy to say they’ve invited me to join them, though I’ve never contributed as much as I should. As far as my listening habits went this year, I feel slightly mortified to say that I may have finally succumbed to nostalgia, a trap I never thought I’d fall into. I bought CDs of albums I hadn’t heard in 40 years just for the sake of hearing them again, got back into the Grateful Dead after decades of holding a grudge against them for being liked by certain people who burned me, and, as the following list shows, even tried to recapture the magic of the 90s, a period when I rediscovered my pop music-loving mojo in early middle age and which now seems like a lifetime ago. If these things work in cycles then the 2010s could very well be another personal watershed period, so I bought a new stereo…just in case.
1. Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara (Vapor/Warner): The twin Quin sisters steer their little boat confidently into the mainstream, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Though they simply unmoored their formidable melodic powers and entrusted the sparkly production to pop skipper Greg Kurstin, they obviously put a lot of effort into making this a collection of love (and sex) songs for the ages. I expect to be listening to it in the afterlife.
2. I Hate Music, Superchunk (Merge/P-Vine): If Superchunk’s raucous indie rock still sounds fresh after all these years it’s because Mac McCaughan, a man who owns the record company he records for and therefore knows enough about music to hate it, doesn’t have to release something he considers undeserving of his attention. These songs are performed in a passionate pop vernacular that’s never gone out of style, only out of practice.
3. Like a Rose, Ashley Monroe (Warner): Thanks to Pistol Annies, this Nashville natural had the luxury of sharpening her skills before recording her debut, which is traditional without being fawning, progressive without being pushy. Sweeter than her PA partners, Monroe is tough about the vicissitudes of life but understands that good times are not only her right, but an obligation when you insist on pushing those fiddles to the front of the mix.
4. Wenu Wenu, Omar Souleyman (Domino/Hostess): This Syrian wedding singer chants, grunts, implores, and mostly just keens away, spurred on by the electronic dabke sounds produced by his accompanist, Rizad Sa’id. The lack of authentic instruments doesn’t make the performance any less inspiring. In fact, those supersonic synths make it more intense as dance music, as thrilling as a James Brown late show after a hard day’s night.
5. Oh, Mayhem!, Bettie Serveert (Palomine): Not as consistent as Superchunk but just as dedicated to 90s indie rock principles, which demand precision, in case you don’t remember. Carol van Dijk has grown more aggressive as a hook maker while gaining warmth as a vocalist, and if they’d released songs as catchy as “Had2BYou” and “Sad Dog” during their brief moment in the sun, they’d now be bigger than Death Cab For Cutie.
6. Matangi, M.I.A. (Interscope/Universal): Having improved exponentially as a live performer since her last album, Maya is finally ready for conventional R&B, though, of course, nothing she does remains conventional for long, which may explain the sour faces; that and the arrogant pop posturing. The rest of us love it, and not just because of her patented multi-culti missionary zeal. You really can dance to it, even with sour faces.
7. Born Sinner, J. Cole (Roc Nation/Sony): Cole’s themes are simple: love is the answer, fame and money won’t solve problems, personal value is measured by one’s response to a spiritual crisis; which is why his second bona fide album incorporates gospel and genuine soul. As far as commercial calculation goes, hip-hop doesn’t get any richer, and as far as redemption goes, no one raps as convincingly as a born sinner.
8. Monomania, Deerhunter (4AD/Hostess): Bradford Cox’s pissy sense of humor has always been difficult to square with his dreamy musical preferences, but the prerogatives finally align on this mess of an American rawk album, which maintains its pleasure quotient through the lo-fi weirdness and ugly vocal eruptions. After 43 minutes you’ll think you’ve had enough of his disturbing obsessions, and then you play it all over again.
9. Beautiful Africa, Rokia Traore (Nonesuch): Assisted by John Parish on an album that could have been titled more imaginatively, Mali’s most gifted songwriter rocks out in ways that may raise eyebrows among her musical compatriots; but who said rock can’t be beautiful, or African, for that matter? And if you bother to dig out the translations of the lyrics that aren’t in English, you’ll understand why it’s so beautiful.
10. Run Fast, The Julie Ruin (TJR): Once more into the breach with a 90s indie rock survivor, which in riot grrrl progenitor Kathleen Hanna’s case is not cheap hyperbole. Reportedly, she almost didn’t make it, which renders these short, sweet, sharp surf-punk ditties extra meaningful.
–Leanin’ On Slick, Aceyalone (Decon): Funky hip-hop utilizing my favorite sort of street vernacular, the clever kind you could never come up with yourself but which doesn’t insult your intelligence.
–Shaking the Habitual, The Knife (Brille/Pachinko): Eliminating anything deemed regular these Swedish siblings are left with a mad tribal urgency and Karin Dreijer’s animalistic vocal affectations. Primitivism abhors a habit.
–Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend (XL/Hostess): East coast rock provincialism–think Paul Simon wondering how Billy Joel can get away with it–that’s distinctive enough to sound timeless.
–World Music, Goat (Rocket/P-Vine): This veteran Swedish collective’s old school psychedelia contains multitudes, as if Jefferson Airplane had been reincarnated as a Portuguese prog unit suddenly smitten with Afrobeat. The beauty of power chords refined to its essence.
–R Plus Seven, Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp/Beat): Daniel Lopatin’s truly tactile music doesn’t touch your heart so much as get under your skin.
–Jama Ko, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba (Out Here/Rice): The guitar album of the year, even if it contains zero guitars.
–In Time, The Mavericks (Valory): Raul Malo finally locates that subdivision of his soul where the spirit of Roy Orbison resides. The fact that he had to reconvene his old band to do it makes the achievement all the more momentous.