Oh, Terry Riley, I wanted to love your new album so very much. But you made it so goofy, so gratingly whimsical, and so very exhaustingly draggingly long, that I can't even like it. I'm so sorry. There are parts I like! "See Them Out There" is pretty cool, with its whistling and weird singing and shuffling percussion. But then when you go back to the dinky sub-80s-kids-show music with your talk about mysterious dwarves and whimsical stories about Santa and Maurice Chevalier lookalikes, I just cannot take it.
Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here
When I first heard this album, I wrote: "My first, facile, thought about it is that it sounds like a Black William S. Burroughs doing Scott Walker's The Drift, but that sells it short by making it sound derivative (not to mention that it's calling it a Black version of white things, which is goddamn crappy of me). Scott-Heron sounds really old now, in the way that the older Burroughs or Walker or Johnny Cash sound old--sometimes to the point of sounding apocalyptic. It's also a startlingly short album; under half an hour, it feels far shorter--it just ended as I'm writing. And this is short in the good way--it gets in, does what it does, and leaves. Incredible music, and this is all without responding at all yet to his words. Words take a lot longer to sink in for me than sounds, and I may return to this album later to write about them." Of course, I never did; and now, ten months later, I have nothing useful to add. This album is dark, industrial, scary, and wonderful, and the lyrics speak for their damn selves.
So Percussion/Matmos, Treasure State
I've always had a great deal of respect for Matmos, especially considering that their found-sound aesthetic isn't far off from my own (though we do very different things with it). And I've always liked their albums, but for some reason I've never found myself able to love any of them. Until I heard this album, actually, the only work of theirs I could have said I truly loved was their collaboration with Björk on several tracks on her Vespertine. Treasure State, though, I really love. I'm not very familiar with So Percussion (though the Baronette once saw them live doing Steve Reich's Drumming, jealous!!!), but it's evident that they complement Matmos perfectly (and maybe for me Matmos just needs collaborators?). In a way this album in the context of today's America reminds me of Cluster's work in the context of early- mid-70s Germany: creating an absolutely good-natured world of pleasant sounds not to cover up the unbearable reality, but to present an alternative to it, something to fight for. Another year's best.
Omar Souleyman, Jazeera Nights
I really have no idea what Omar Souleyman's cultural role in Syria is, beyond a vague notion that he's hugely popular. Whether he's a bandwagon jumping copycat or a searingly brilliant pioneer or just another pop star or something else entirely, no idea. And, being a monolingual Murican, I have no idea what he's singing about, so, you know, love songs, nationalist state-promotion, working class anthems, subversive whatever, could be anything as far as I know. (I suppose I could look into it, but I have yet to feel the inclination.) You know, full disclosure. But good god damn, the sound is exciting. The music here isn't much different from what you'll find on the slightly-better Dabke 2020 comp that was released in the US last year: the form of dabke (which will be at least vaguely familiar to most Americans from a half century of exotification in movies), pushed to an extreme.
My immediate impression when first hearing him was that he was like M.I.A., but crazier and Syrian rather than Tamil British, but that is inaccurate and reductive (though you will note I mentioned it anyway, because I don't know how to write about music). Everything here is blasting, even on the ballads (a relative term): the drums are frenzied, but precise, and overwhelming; the winds are peaking and clipped at all times; Souleyman is singing, yes, but more so he is shouting, like a Tom Jones with a better idea of what he's doing. When all I had heard was individual songs, I had my doubts that the sound could be sustained listenably throughout an entire album, but now, having heard two albums, I can state with confidence that I was wrong.
Sun City Girls, Funeral Mariachi
And we go from real middle eastern music to fake middle eastern music. Funeral Mariachi is, if my understanding is correct, a memorial to Charles Gocher, the Sun City Girls' drummer, who died a few years back. And it's gorgeous music. I'm not hugely familiar with Sun City Girls--I am intermittently in obsessive love with their 1990 album Torch of the Mystics and find a few of Sir Richard Bishop's recent solo albums lightly diverting, and that's about it--but if they have more than one or two albums in their enormous and famously varied catalog that are superior to this, I would be very surprised. The sound is not at all what you would probably imagine if you were told that a middle eastern-influenced album was called Funeral Mariachi, but that nevertheless is what it sounds like, in its beautiful, mysterious way. I don't know if I'm running short on words because post after post of album reviews has worn me out, or because this album leaves me speechless, but I'm going to go with the latter and it sure feels like it fits. One of the year's best.
Yellow Swans, Going Places
The two other Yellow Swans albums I've heard, Psychic Secession and At All Ends, are two of the greatest albums I've heard from the past ten years. This, their last album, released two years after the announcement of their breakup, is just as good and at the same time somehow kind of a letdown. As always, this is improvisational noise that falls into none of the ruts that have become stereotypical of the noise genre. The overall structure here, unlike the other albums I know, seems based more in ambient music than in noise, though the fact that it is still noise makes it hard to imagine it being used as ambient music. It's an interesting album, but something I can't put my finger on makes me less excited about it than I want to be. It's possible that it just needs to grow on me; though I've listened to it quite a few times at this point, I'm still willing to wait and see.
And that, thank god, is the end. Remind me not to do this next year.
To summarize, the very very best albums of 2010, according to me, in alphabetical order, are:
1. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Pt. 2: The Return of the AnkhFour albums I didn't hear until I was too far into this to include them are worth mentioning: Jim O'Rourke's lovely All Kinds of People ~Love Burt Bacharach~ has O'Rourke, in his pop mode, covering twelve Bacharach songs with an assortment of primarily Japanese guest singers (including Yoshimi from Boredoms!), and is excellent; M.I.A.'s Vicki Leekx mixtape is OK, but not as good as I hoped it would be--it may need to grow on me; Supersilent's 10 and 11 are characteristically excellent improvisational electronic kind-of-jazz, 10 being softer and 11 rougher.
2. Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea
3. Fenn O'Berg, In Stereo
4. Four Tet, There Is Love in You
5. The Knife in Collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, Tomorrow, in a Year
6. Natural Snow Buildings, The Centauri Agent
7. omoo omoo, new fields
8. So Percussion/Matmos, Treasure State
9. Sun City Girls, Funeral Mariachi
More summarizing: this was a very good year for albums, the best as far as my collection goes since 2006 (which was insane with all the classic albums--I count at least a dozen in my collection that in an ordinary year would easily be album of the year). A big chunk of the stuff I found really great was dramatically underrated. Lots of people made really, really long albums, with the shocking exception of Ghostface Killa, who made a reasonably-lengthed one for the first time in his life. I continue to love music without knowing how to write about it.