Below, in no particular order, are ten records that captivated and intrigued me in 2010. What were your favorites? Please send them along by clicking on the Comment button.
KING SUNNY ADE: Baba Mo Tunde (Mesa/Bluemoon).
Not everything of musical consequence happens in four minutes. Sometimes when a band is as adept at groove-making as this one, a tune can cruise for a good while, building intensity in a bubbling, slow-simmering way that proclaims the primacy of rhythm. Indeed, when the pulse is this multifaceted and intricate, it’s all you need. In this singles era, we don’t encounter too much of what might be called “extended” music making under studio conditions, and that’s one reason King Sunny Ade’s two-disc Baba Mo Tunde, his first studio effort in a decade, is essential. Ramping up in a delightfully methodical, unhurried way, and then cruising along for 15 minutes or more, Ade and company show how thrilling the marathon journey can be.
THE BLACK KEYS: Brothers (Nonesuch)
Pretend you have ten minutes to teach overprivileged ten year olds toting their overpriced Stratocasters to the local School of Rock a lesson in any pop music subgenre. It’s a fabulous parlor game, and trickier than you think: Remember that even the most precocious cratedigging tween may not yet be up to speed on German prog circa 1974. If you choose blues-rock, where the innovative leaps stop with Lynyrd Skynyrd (ok, maybe Govt Mule), at least you’ll be able to share some of this totally ripping, irrepressibly hooky career-best statement from the Black Keys. At first, the compact tunes here sound like ordinary riff-based genre studies that follow the guidelines established by the early Stones in the pre School of Rock era. Hang with Brothers for a little while, and you discover a band that’s distilled oddly shaped blues shards into a profoundly new elixir, and from there added only the most essential ingredients – terse prechoruses and blunt refrains and two-bar rhythm guitar punctuations that are comfortably familiar and pure hotwired magic at the same time.
THE ROOTS: How I Got Over (Def Jam).
This summer’s homage to the consciousness-raising soul of the ‘70s, the Roots/John Legend collaboration Wake Up!, seemed woefully late on arrival. The idealism that Obama rode into office had dissipated into plodding partisanship, leaving even the most loyal believers bewildered and already nostalgic for the rhetoric of Summer 2008. Wake Up! was fine as far as it went, but the most acidic comment on this malaise moment was found on The Roots’ appropriately agitated How I Got Over. Here, rapper Black Thought looks around at all that has not changed – the relentless bleakness of inner city poverty, a latent systemic racism, and most of all a widespread apathy – and shakes his head at the hollowness of the platitudes, the emptiness of the response. He sounds almost resigned to dismay about the status quo, and meanwhile the band is fired up and clearly not engaging in any kind of go-along-to-get along. It takes more than tightly wound genre-blurring rhythms beats to stamp out disillusionment, of course, but the way these guys play, the smack of the attack, is a good start. Extra points for the title track, which recasts the faith-based exaltation of a ‘50s gospel standard as an ode to resourcefulness, what it takes to make it through the daily scramble.
NEIL YOUNG: Le Noise (Reprise)
We are lucky that Neil Young, rock legend, remains curious about rock music as a present-tense pursuit and not just a tired artifact. He’s explored every interesting combination of raw guitar sonics and tender , pitying vocals, and hasn’t fully exhausted all the possibilities yet. Sometimes his experiments misfire, and sometimes they lead to music that is ear-stretchingly vital and utterly distinct from everything else. That’s Le Noise in a nutshell. Here Young drills deep into a fundamentally new approach, inspired not just by Daniel Lanois’ stately background atmospherics, but also by the broad, harrowing tone coming from the guitar. (In an interview, Young marveled at how Lanois made the guitar sound “like God.”) The menace and murk in these settings turns out to be an ideal backdrop for Young’s ruminations on decay, loss, and that strange postmodern condition of too much information and not enough insight.
KANYE WEST: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam).
Celebrities never tire of complaining about the media fishbowl. Listen to them long enough, and you develop a keen ear for their particular dialect of victimspeak – regardless of the circumstances, they’ve been unfairly judged, their lives altered by the firestorm of TMZ attention. Of course Producer Kanye West has brought a measure of allegedly unwelcome coverage upon himself, and on this often brilliant collection of beats and wisecracks, he airs all his grievances. He explores what it means to be portrayed as a “monster” – and then, because why not?, he acts like a monster. He shares what sounds like earnest confessions about his inability to sustain a relationship, going so far on “Runaway” as to advise one long-suffering paramour to run. The candor is refreshing even when the fantasies veer into the realm of shock theater, and at times the ornate collaged accompaniments, which juxtapose sumptuous strings against trashcan drumming, are dizzyingly inventive. If there’s a weak spot here, it’s West’s too-offhand, rhythmically imprecise delivery: As an MC, he’s an amazing producer.