Mark’s best of 2010

It’s kind of odd that 2010 was bookended by the death of two people who just walked away from it all. In January, J.D. Salinger died; in December, Captain Beefheart died. Both had put themselves in a self-imposed exile from what made them famous. For Salinger, it was writing – he didn’t publish a story for the second half of his life. Beefheart walked away from a singular career in music to focus on art but eventually was limited by MS from even that.
But the thing was, both walked away, fully, completely. It was kind of fascinating how the two, neither of whom really had done anything in decades, became the subject of mass tribute – Beefheart got props from music blogs that I don’t think ever touched his albums, while anybody who ever read Catcher in the Rye went out of their way to praise JD (even though he wrote much better books).
It seems like a mixture of both sincerity and irony, dashed with a little of doing what it takes to fit in. A tonic mix which seems to define 2010, to some degree. This was a year where the must-see movie was a deliberately confusing tangent of intertwining plots, the best TV show was one that mixed earnest and irony until you weren’t sure which one was which and a band best known for clown makeup leaped into the cultural zeitgeist with a song that asked: :”Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”
In short, 2010 was a little bit of everything, and here at Extended Play, we hope our best of  2010 manages to cover all of it.  

Best album: Plastic Beach – Gorillaz
Hon. Mention: Volume 2 – She and Him; Crystal Castles (II) – Crystal Castles; Pop Negro – El Guincho

2010 was probably Gorillaz’s year to lose. They had one of the best non-album cuts of the year (Doncamatic, where Daley just killed it on vocals), a succession of good videos, toured through the summer and fall (still annoyed I didn’t catch them in Toronto) and their main album of the year was great, easily my favorite of 2010.

Listening to all their works in a row, one can hear the progression to Plastic Beach. While Gorillaz started as a way for Damon Alburn to make music away from the spotlight, it’s increasingly become a place for exprimentation; their sound has moved from the plodding, dub-informed sound of their first album to a pop album littered with hooks; Clint Eastwood, their first hit, doesn’t fit into anything they’ve done recently. They’ve slowly moved to a more electronic sound (see Stylo, Melancholy Hill) or a sound verging on hip-hop (Welcome to the world of Plastic Beach is barely recognizable as a Gorillaz song).

This is a good thing. What was once a way to get away has become a place to experiment and mix up sounds and ideas – they mix Arabic orchestral sounds with English hip hop by way of indie rock in one memorable song. It’s deeper than that, though. Gorillaz has always been a band rooted in pop music with a large and devoted fanbase. The way they’re willing to try different things, to experiment, means more with so many people paying attention. They’ve done just as much for Bobby Womack’s career as Jackie Brown did. They’ve brought new singers (like Daley) into the forefront and kept an older generation (Mick Jones and Paul Simonon or Lou Reed) relevant. Even at the albums worst (and it does seem to peter out near the end) it’s still captivating. Like the best, it left me wanting more.

Best song which didn’t appear on an album: Papermill – Madvillian
Hon Mention: Doncamatic – Gorillaz; Down by the Water – The Decemberists

Few collaborations are as amazing as Madvillian. It’s easy to throw cliched phrases like “outside the box” at the group, but for once, they actually fit; this is a band that has gone right to the core of what makes their music work and reinvented it.

Listen to any hiphop track from this year. Chances are it’s based not so much on a sample as a motif; a sample/hook and beat which set the tempo and the flow of the song. Listen to Papermill, a song that kicks off with an off-beat sample from a German funk record and only gets going once MF DOOM starts going over a guitar solo. There’s no hook, there’s barely any frame keeping this together; DOOM moves freely about the beat, almost anticipating what’s about to happen as he moves throughout (and has some absolutely great lines to boot).

This is less an innovation as it is something else entirely, since I’m not sure anybody else could really do what they do as well as they do it. It’s exciting, it’s dynamic and it’s the best non-album cut (and one of the best cuts period) of the year.

Best video: Bombay – El Guincho from Pop Negro

Yes, this video has a heck of a lot of boobs. Quite a bit of them, actually. But it’s got a lot of everything here. It’s less a video of the band playing as it is a succession of quick images, some which provide a bit of continuity, but for the most part hint at something I’m just not quite getting.

As said, it has a lot of boobs. And indeed, a lot of this video has highly sexual imagery: topless girls in the jungle or a shot of a girl blowing bubbles into an overflowing glass of milk. But there’s other things going on: two guys swordfighting with light bulbs, a man running with a rifle. Grotesque images come in: disconnected body parts, hands grabbing faces. What are they saying? Is there a connection between the sensual and the violent and the disturbing?

And hell, if you’re not even into deconstructing the video, it’s still worth a look: the tune is great, the video complements it and, really, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Best book: Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

I did luck into an advanced copy of this, so that helps, but on the whole, this was a novel I quote enjoyed. Mitchell’s tale of love and adventure in the Far East was riveting, well written and engrossing; by book’s end, I felt I knew the characters more than I know some of my coworkers.

I’d write more, but if you want a deeper look, hit up my review from last summer.

Best TV Series: Community

The best sitcom on television amped it up as 2010 came to a close, with back-to-back episodes that were among the best of anything I saw all year. The first was Mixology Certification, the episode where Troy turns 21 and hits up a bar for the first time. The second was Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, a claymation special dealing with being alone on the holidays while poking fun at the schmaltz of Christmas specials.

At it’s best, Community works so well because it’s both a sitcom and a satire of the sitccom. It’s meta, yes, but it works thanks to the earnestness of the cast and a very solid core of writing; it’s gotta be hard to write a show that mocks conventions of television even as it uses them. To wit: in an episode where everybody was cooped in the study room, Abed openly called it a ‘bottle episode’. His character is there almost especially to break the fourth wall and let you in on the joke, but when the show is at it’s best, he’s also the emotional core; witness how touching the Christmas episode was when dealing with the remoteness of Abed’s family.

There is a glut of sly winks on television right now and there’s a bunch of good sitcoms. There’s even a couple that combine the two. But none, not even 30 Rock, is able to combine a knowing wink of “you’re in on this joke too” with a core. Community does and I think the strongest testament to how good it can be is that it would work even if it was played straight.

Best TV moment: Kimmel beats up Leno

I’m still not sure why Leno thought it would be a good idea to talk to Kimmel. I can’t imagine he was naive enough to think the host would be easy on him and surely he had to realize it was a zero-sum game – if he looked good, Kimmel would bad and vice versa. So maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised when Kimmel went right for the throat.

Looking back, even less than a year later, I’m still kind of surprised that Kimmel interjected himself into the late-night war; it really wasn’t his battle. And after all, Craig Furguson and Jimmy Fallon stayed the hell away from it. But Kimmel not only threw himself in there, but he beat up on a defenseless Leno as often and as hard as he could. Kimmel did a show in Leno-drag. Kimmel mocked Leno every night, it seemed, for a month. And Leno had Kimmel on his show for a Q/A segment where Kimmel just attacked him as brutally as I’ve ever seen on TV. It was the defining image from the more-or-less banal Late Night War: Leno looking confused, like he’d been thrown in a pool, after Kimmel just explained his greatest prank.

Now, I wonder if Kimmel ultimately played a role in the collective villainizing of Leno. He certainly did him no favors. And even though it wasn’t his battle, Kimmel ended up being the lasting winner of the late night war.

I’m not naming a best movie since Inception was the only new movie I saw this year.

Best new song from a new artist: The Smooth Maria – Abandoned Town from Paper Thin EP
Runner up: Tennis – Marathon

Best song from the 2010 SXSW Sampler: You do run – Cocktail Slippers

The 2010 South by Southwest sampler was huge, something like six hours of music. Maybe more, even. And yes, I did sit and listen through the entire set of mp3s (it took the better part of two months). There was a number of good tunes by bands I’ve never heard of, plus a few by bands I already know of and like, but for me, none stood out like the Cocktail Slippers’ tune did.

It’s a gorgeous, driving power pop tune, with a cool guitar riff and a singalong chorus (I love the backing vocals on the song). It’s fun, it’s catchy and I’ve found it held up to repeated listens; it’s probably the only song from the set I haven’t grown tired of. It’s a shame that live, the song doesn’t seem to be as good (as the only video I can find of it suggests).

Best cover: Crystal Castles – Not In Love (feat. Robert Smith)

Speaking of good 2010, Crystal Castles has a decent year. They released their second album (pushed ahead because it got leaked, which is both a good and bad sign), made a few appearances on US TV (including a good set on Kimmel where the crowd looked confused by what was happening on stage) and even got The Cure’s Robert Smith to drop by and re-record vocals for a cover of Platinum Blonde’s Not In Love.

It’s a decent song and highlights the best aspects of what Crystal Castles does best: a frantic, immediate keyboard line which devolves into a frenzy of noise, propelling the song forward.

Ironic moment of the year: When those jokers who did an acoustic cover of Miracles I can’t find at the moment

2010 was a really good year for the Insane Clown Posse – they got props on SNL and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; they got a full-length profile in Wired Magazine and they released a movie about cowboys and clowns nobody bothered watching. They also had probably the closest thing they’ll ever get to a hit single in Miracles, a song which both praised the wonders of life and, infamously, opined how magnets worked.

I’m convinced their song was more ironic than most people assumed – I also believe they’re smarter than they let on, since their fans don’t really care about their brains and the mainstream is more than willing to write them off as idiots – and I’m chalking their year of success up to a willingness to play the fool. Of course they know how magnets work; the point of their song was to get noticed for being stupid.

Anyway, on to the irony.

Once their video went viral, covers of it started popping up all over the web. One that stands out in my mind was an acoustic cover done by two Brooklyn-ites who overdubbed a wealth of vocals/bells/charm to the song and took out all the swears. As a cover, it wasn’t half bad. But it leaked irony all over my carpet and to treat it as something serious goes against it’s intent. It’s catchy, yes, but it’s also mocking an easy target. Still, I appreciate the energy it took to put together. For that, it gets my nod for Ironic Moment of the Year.

Best cover which is probably ironic, but I can’t prove it: I’m going down – Free Energy

Free Energy are one of those bands I can’t really pin down: for all intents and purposes, they should be a band that plays ironic covers and does everything – right down to jumping around on stage – with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Their self-titled track, their first release, was something that sounded equal parts late-70s power pop (they remind me quite a bit of a band called Earth Quake which probably nobody else remembers).

But this cover makes me think of being at a bar and hearing a Journey song come on – there’s always going to be a bunch of scene kids laughing and having a good time while mocking 80’s rock, but they’re also enjoying themselves. It’s the same here – I feel like this was covered on a lark, but they like (or at least respect) Bruce on some level, and it stops being just irony and a little earnest creeps in. After all, Vampire Weekend did their own cover of this song. And my gut tells me when they do something and somebody more hip does the same thing, the second is probably having a laugh at the first, especially if it means rubbing it in.

It’s not my favorite cover of the year and I don’t especially like Free Energy too much, but Springsteen’s song shines even here.

20 Responses to “Mark’s best of 2010”

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