Mr. Wall is a writer, editor and Doctor Zoidberg enthusiast from Columbia, S.C. He is the music editor of Free Times, contributes to Shuffle magazine and blogs infrequently at WeekendsOfSound. He is a founding member of the Meatsweats, whose sloppy post-punk has pleased nary a critic. Also, Mr. Wall is kind of an asshole.
KNEE MEETS JERK: In Which a Beleaguered Music Journalist Attempts — and Fails — to Identify Ten Records Released Between December 2009 and December 2010 That Were Better Than All Other Releases in the Same Time Period. Listed in alphabetical order. Results subject to change.
Jason Adasiewicz, Sun Rooms (Delmark)
A mainstay on the Chicago improv-jazz scene (see: Josh Berman’s Old Idea, The Lucky 7s, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra), Jason Adasiewicz is single-handedly making an argument for the vibraphone as a crucial instrument in 21st century jazz. Sun Rooms, his third record as a leader, finds Adasiewicz paring his ensemble down to a trio reminiscent of the classic piano trios of Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner. That’s not to say Adasiewicz’s vibes-led trios are inherently romantic: The trio barrels through Sun Ra’s “Overtones of China” with amped-up ferociousness, and “Stake” swings hard with drummer Mike Reed chasing Adaciewicz’s skittering mallets. But that’s not to say Sun Rooms isn’t romantic, either: The balladic “Rose Garden,” with Adasiewicz’s cat’s-feet malleted notes softly cascading, is evocative of the linear, horn-like playing of underrated vibes great Bobby Hutcherson.
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)
You know what? Fuck Kanye West. Sir Lucious Left Foot, Big Boi’s long-delayed debut full-length, was overshadowed by the year by hip-hop’s biggest ego and his megalomaniacal Dark, Twisted Fantasy, but it’s nonetheless a frenzied album that finds Antwan Andre Patton in top form, spitting nimble and irreverent rhymes over robust, idea-crammed beats steeped in low-slung, anti-gravity Southern funk (“General Patton”; “Shutterbugg”; “Back Up Plan”) and strip-club booty-clap boom-bap (“Tangerine”; “You Ain’t No DJ”). Sir Lucious Left Foot is not without its stumbles — who the fuck invited Vonnegut? — but its rubbery funk and marvelously weird energy far outclass its few shortcomings. Big Boi’s on another planet; everyone else is, at most, merely fly. (And, as a bonus, Sir Lucious Left Foot’s skits are actually funny.)
James Blake, Klavierwerke EP (R&S)
I agree with Twit-crit Christopher Weingarten’s assertion that “post-dubstep” as a micro-genre is bullshit. But I like Klavierwerke for the same reason I liked The Field’s The Sound of Light and, ultimately, for the same reason I like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: It’s at the same time entirely ignorable and eminently listenable. For the active listener, Klavierwerke is an oddly affecting — and at times really fucking creepy — listen, blending the austerity of minimalism with microhouse beats and dubstep’s haunting, distorted vocals.
The Books, The Way Out (Temporary Residence)
Collage artists as much as they are musicians, The Books’ Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto on The Way Out are less concerned about fashioning their extensive sample-generated orchestra into abstract puzzles. (See: Thought for Food.) Rather, The Way Out finds The Books mining their source material — a series of fumbling answering-machine messages; ranting grammarians; guided meditation-style self-help recordings; a battle of increasingly violent threats between two children — for their innate emotional depth and humanity, but still done with The Books’ trademark wink-and-nod juxtaposition, pairing disorienting oddness with deeply relaxing Pinback-for-chillbros sonics. The inention for The Way Out, apparently, was for each song to be a self-contained rabbit hole; that each song seems to belong to the same, readily recognizable universe is a happy coincidence.
Double Negative, Daydreamnation (Sorry State)
Though it cribs its name from Sonic Youth’s first post-SST album, Daydreamnation finds Double Negative favoring a brand of brash, abrasive hardcore punk that was the hallmark of SST’s early years. Yet there’s more than a hint of the Triangle’s angular indie-rock in the Raleigh quintet’s roots (not surprising, given its members spent time in early Merge noisemakers Polvo and Erectus Monotone), and Double Negative’s expressive experiments with mood, texture and tempos — think Black Flag via Polvo — puts Daydreamnation among the finest forward-thinking hardcore records of recent memory.
Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (Warp)
A twisting, shape-shifting mass of free jazz (doubtless derived from his Coltrane lineage), outer-space hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, intergalactic funk and blaxploitation soundtrack orchestration, Cosmogramma finds Flying Lotus (nee Steve Ellison) taking J Dilla’s funky instrumental hip-hop and exploding it outward into a densely layered space opera. Incorporating live instrumentation into his laptop manipulations and splicing it together into lithe, liquid intellectual electro-funk, Ellison has cemented himself as one of the smartest, most forward-thinking producers in hip-hop.
Kylesa, Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist)
“Keep moving,” Philip Cope bellows during the chorus of “Don’t Look Back.” “Don’t look back.” Indeed, the Savannah, Ga., quintet has been pushing the boundaries of heavy metal since its inception at the dawn of the millennium, incorporating elements of raw hardcore punk, psychedelic stoner rock, technical speed metal and thick, swampy, Sabbath-y sludge into its hard rock core. Spiral Shadow finds Kylesa perfecting its art, adding a rhythmic intricacy and intensity without losing itself in indulgent prog-rock wank or Melvins-esque thud. Spiral Shadow is, perhaps, Kylesa’s most melodic record, with guitarists Cope and Laura Pleasants — who is perhaps the most underrated woman in rock — trading shouts, croons and incendiary guitar work back and forth in a majestic haze.
Maple Stave, Like Rain Freezing and Thawing Between Bricks Year After Year, This House Will Come Down (self-released)
A trio of unusual instrumentation — Evan Rowe plays drums, Andy Hull and Chris Williams both play hollow, aluminum baritone guitarts — Durham’s Maple Stave plays a brand of muscular and steadily tension-ratcheting math rock that’s a blistering mix of Shellac’s raw, acerbic noise-rock, Slint’s dynamism and June of 44’s intensely sloped tangents. Like Rain Freezing is an outstandingly nuanced document, pivoting between low drones and siren-call highs and bouncing between grand glory and anxious, breathless desperation.
The National, High Violet (4AD)
Cracks the shortlist almost on the strength of “Afraid of Everyone” — which nigh perfectly manages the rural book smarts of the band’s Ohio roots with the cosmopolitan groom of its Brooklyn home — alone, which, I think, says quite a bit about the relative merits of the music released in 2010. High Violet is a hit-and-miss record, but its highs (“Afraid of Everyone,” “Conversation 16,” “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”) soar higher than its lows sink.
Superchunk, Majesty Shredding (Merge)
Call Majesty Shredding a return to form if you must, but that Superchunk sounds as fresh, after a near-decade absence, on Majesty Shredding as it did on Superchunk (or, more appropriately, No Pocky for Kitty), is a testament to its songs’ organic energy and the band’s maturity. Dear Sonic Youth: This is how you grow old gracefully.
Thank God, Ice/Age (Exotic Fever)
Several years in the making, Thank God’s debut full-length Ice/Age, released on Exotic Fever Records, is no mere punk record. Ice/Age is an animal unto itself, meandering through a volatile mix of mathy bursts of art-damaged hardcore, saxophone-driven free-jazz meditations, ballistic noise-rock freakouts and tension-building post-rock intermissions. It showcases the sinewy quintet at its absolute most refined, most mature, most brain-bending, most explosive, most dynamic best. Ice/Age is nothing short of a masterstroke, and its punishing aural assault doesn’t relent until the last screeches of feedback fade to silence.
Toe, For Long Tomorrow (Machupicchu Industrias)
Like Tortoise or Pele (and Collections of Colonies of Bees, which Pele evolved in to), Japanese quartet Toe follows the nontraditional-as-traditional math rock structures: nonrepeating sections; constantly evolving melodies; looping, loping, upwardly arcing guitar phrases; acute, angular left turns. But like Battles, the strength lies in the drumming, in this case the frantically tight stickwork of Kashikura Takashi, who’s adept at propelling chamleonic numbers like “After Image” as he is finding the pocket on groove-oriented, off-time builders like “Goodbye” and accenting nigh-beatless compositions like the vibes-driven “Two Moons.” And like Battles, Toe’s arrangements — a slick, seamless blend of glitchy, unpredictable beats and layered acoustic instruments — are first-rate and forward-thinking.
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This (Carpark)
Columbia’s Chaz Bundick has come a long way from spinning four-track indie-folk yarns in his bedroom, as Toro Y Moi debuted in 2001. Causers of This is the product of a voraciously omnivorous musical diet: Daft Punk’s dayglo synths; J Dilla’s intellectual beats; Animal Collective’s woozy melodies; 10cc’s gauzy haze. Indeed, chillwave — or glo-fi, hypnagogic pop, et al — was almost solely and distinctly Bundick’s before the copycats came along, and, to wit, he still does it best, mostly because he remembers to connect to his audience. Causers of This is, at heart, a break-up record, one on par, in terms of emotional depth, with Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen or Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance. Causers of This is an ode to a relationship gone sour, torn apart by distance (“Blessa”: “Come home for the summer / We’re the life that you missed”), indifference (“Thanks Vision”: “It doen’t matter, does it? / No”), desperation (“Talamak”: “When can we get together again? / Never mind, I’ve lost you”) and, ultimately, insecurity (“You Hid”: “I don’t think I’d work out / As your best friend / I don’t want to hold you down”). It’s remarkably human for an electronic record, and remarkably individualistic for a record that mines so much of pop music’s past.
Honorable Mention/Apologies To: Jason Ajemian & the High Life, Let Me Get That Digital; Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh; Baths, Cerulean; The Jeb Bishop Trio, 2009; The Black Keys, Brothers; Call Me Lightning, When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free; Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer; Coliseum, House With A Curse; Das Racist, Sit Down, Dude/Shut Up, Man; Deftones, Diamond Eyes; El-P, Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx3; Envy, Recitation; Four Tet, There Is Love In You; Girl Talk, All Day; Grids, Kansas; Harvey Milk, A Small Turn of Human Kindness; It’s a King Thing, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo; Land of Talk, Cloak and Cypher; LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening; Ted Leo And The Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks; Les Savy Fav, Roots for Ruin; Lost in the Trees, All Alone in an Empty House; Madlib, Madlib Medicine Show series; Maserati, Pyramid of the Sun; Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid; Pianos Become the Teeth, Old Pride; Pillars & Tongues, The Lay of Pilgrim Park; Robyn, Body Talk; Rick Ross, Teflon Don; The Rooftops, A Forest of Polarity; The Roots, How I Got Over; Aram Shelton Quartet, These Times; Shining, Blackjazz; Sleigh Bells, Treats; So Percussion + Matmos, Treasure State; Spoon, Transference; The Sword, Warp Riders; Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz; Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To the Sky; Sharon Van Etten, Epic; Venice is Sinking, Sand & Lines; The Walkmen, Lisbon; Warpaint, The Fool; Weye, Friends, Family & Others