(Oddly, even though I've given up solid media for new music--with very few exceptions, pretty much all of my music, at this point, is on my computer or on non-new vinyl, CDs be damned--I've become more and more dedicated to the album format. I almost never listen to individual songs. So, my year review is going to be talking about albums. And 2010 was a really, really good year for albums, probably the best since 2006. I'm not going to bother putting these into order. So over the next few days or, more likely, weeks--I'm not a timely person--I'm gonna be posting a paragraph or two, festooned with links, about all of the new albums I heard this year, in alphabetical order, four or five at a time. I apologize in advance for how shitty I am at writing about music.)
Christina Aguilera, Bionic
After two songs where she for some reason thinks it's a good idea to imitate fucking Lady Gaga, Aguilera settles into some of the utterly in(s)ane pop she, starting way back with "Dirrty," helped pioneer: the third song starts with some very new agey synth bubbles before turning into a dancehall-ish piece of nonsense featuring a relentless sample from a Hungarian pop-prog song from the 70s and lyrics about how everyone wants to see and kiss and taste her woohoo, while the fourth song is called "Elastic Love," was co-written and produced by M.I.A., and sounds like a song called "Elastic Love" co-written and produced by M.I.A.
And so it goes. You probably already know if you're likely to enjoy a Christina Aguilera album, so I'll just say, first, that this is a good one, second, that the ballads don't drag this one down as much as they tend to do with albums like this (though I renew, for the billionth time, my plea to musicians everywhere to remember that not every album has to be an hour long), and third, that I continue to think Christina Aguilera is one of the best role-models for young girls available in mass culture.
Ellen Allien, Dust
It's not a masterpiece, but this one seems to be pretty severely underrated. I don't think I'll ever love an Ellen Allien album the way I love Berlinette, but really that's my problem, not hers. She's continuing with the stark, glitchy dance beats and beautifully cold vocals, but there's an odd sentimentality here in songs like "Sun the Rain" that works unexpectedly well. Allien holds the best tracks back until the end: "Dream" slowly builds layers of different types of atmospheres over one surprisingly effective rising synth line, "Huibuh" does things with electronica and swanky jazz that should not work but do, and "Schlumi" sounds like picking up where Urszula Dudziak's dancier music left off.
Alva Noto, For 2
Lovely music, right from the moment the wash of white noise resolves suddenly into a bass tone and resonant high pulse in the first few seconds of opening track "garment (for a garment)." The general strategy here is to build minimalist, slightly shifting atmospheres out of electronics and glitches and build upon them with similarly minimalist, similarly shifting, but somewhat more melodic live (though not by any means untreated) instruments. No one element leads; all are equally important.
For me the gimmick of dedicating the songs to other artists primarily creates a list of people and collectives to check out (The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, the dedicatee of "anthem berlin," seems particularly interesting), though the few I'm familiar with (like "stalker (for andrei tarkovsky)" and "early winter (for phill niblock)") are wonderfully appropriate.
A Rate Your Music reviewer referred to this collaboration as "Alva Neubauten"--perhaps a bit clever-clever but entirely accurate. The album Alva Noto made by himself this year, as I just mentioned, starts into its exploration of beauty the instant it begins. The album he made with Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld begins with a near-inhuman scream, first in one channel, then the other, joined soon by a near-human droning syllable. It cuts suddenly, then the same sound fades back in quieter, begins to glitch, and then Bargeld comes in, speaking quietly but threateningly into the noise. This album is not lovely. I don't know if the combination of industrial and glitch is new, but this is the first time I've heard it, and it works immediately, unsettlingly. Eight minutes into the opening track, the whole terrifying atmosphere vanishes and is replaced by something utterly different (a simple piano line, some verging on New Age chanting, Bargeld singing rather than speaking) for the last two minutes, as if to say that even consistent fear is too solid a ground for this album to rest on.
Two covers are notable: Nilsson's "One" and Greil Marcus's favorite nihilist folk song, "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground," both of which are not so much reinvented as just placed, whole, into a new context. The standout original track to me is "Ret Marut Handshake," a tribute (I think) to an anarchist actor and possibly writer who I honestly don't know anything about (again Alva Noto introduces me to people I need to look into) but whose name followed by the word "Handshake," repeated over and over, forms an amazingly powerful incantation.