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One Writer’s Opinion The Top Five Albums of 2010 I nquiring marketing majors want to know: Where do you hear about your favorite music? Pray, does the Internet have anything to do with it? Either way, from sea to shining sea, any culture rag worth its weight in ads will be publishing their top albums of the year, in this, the supposed post-Internet, splintered-consensus aesthetic diaspora. But those who are paying attention might detect a sameness to many of these year-end lists. One might hypothesize that although we’re exposed to music in different ways, when the writers at large aggregate their tastes into one list, the most-exposed media rises to the top. Inevitably, you get your token electronic album, your token Americana album, your token Kanye album. Flagpole has elected to do something different this year: instead of cobbling together a list of the agreed-upon golden calves, each writer will be publishing their individual lists, collected at Flagpole’s website—wide dispersion in hopes of greater diversity of opinion. This is my list. Where did I find this music? In order of appearance: seeing bands on tour, following my longtime favorites, my weirdly well-informed parents, notable detritus on blogs, and receiving word from friends up North. By no means for everyone, this is what stuck to my ribs this year.

1.

GORILLAZ Plastic Beach Parlophone/Virgin

Plastic Beach is pretty much non-stop cotton candy pancakes, as far as aural information goes; the album is ineffably bolstered by its pop gemstones, which number more than half the record. These earworms are without mercy, complimenting Jamie Hewlett’s animation with outsize drum machines and bubble-font synths. Beyond the central appeal of the band’s

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“on” or “off,” “1” or “0.” The only variables in these somewhat harsh tones are pitch, duration and volume. When you turn on your copy of 1-Bit Symphony, you’re not listening to an MP3—you’re listening to a real-time, programmed performance of data being run off the microchip. The humanity contained on these microchip movements will shock you. Even more raw and simple than the nerdy-retro world of chiptune music, the unrelenting sounds found here form textures that pass the threshold of grating to somehow discover lush territory. The tones arpeggiate and spindle forth in carefully arranged strands of pixelated DNA, often piling onto one another, jostling for room in their limited frequency range. To take these bastardized and hated sounds, so often associated with a slap of the snooze button or an alarm on a digital watch that you can’t manage to turn off, and to make them move in such glorious concert isn’t just ingenious, it’s charitable.

4.

Zs New Slaves The Social Registry

It didn’t seem like it was going to happen. Not in the punk camp, where crusty-dreadlocked old-schoolers form “new” bands that sound mysteriously like their 20-year-old selves. Certainly not in the world of heavy metal, with its high-gain, low-impact, double-kick pitter-patter. No, it turned out that a trio of music school dweebs who perform while reading sheet music would do the impossible (or at least unlikely) and prove that truly intimidating, intense music with as-of-yet unheard aggressiveness is not a closed frontier in 2010. Coming up through the “new music” world of New York City, at first Zs merely played challenging music with a studied bent; as of late, they have veered into a diabolical realm of sound much akin to roadwork. The opening half of New Slaves has a dead-eyed, Swans-like repetition to it, only to briefly return to their earlier, mathier style on the white-knuckle, 20-minute title track. From there on, it’s all nervous saxophones, found sound and ambient discomfort. This is cathartic, difficult listening that is guaranteed to drown out what your life usually sounds like. Check out my Q&A with Zs at www.flagpole.com.

HEIGHT WITH FRIENDS Bed of Seeds Friends Records

Height is one of those less-than-likely characters. A tall, broad-shouldered longhair, he’s the hip-hop head in residency with Dan Deacon’s Baltimore-based Wham City crew. He tends towards the Neil Young school of rhyme scheme. But like Neil Young, Height takes simple words and imbues them with conviction, emotion and honesty. Which isn’t to say he’s obvious; most of the songs on Bed of Seeds are borne of dreams; they admit as much in their first verses. They often take place in mysterious, wooded settings: lagoons, forests, “where no one can see.” In the magical realism world of the subconscious, Height can allow himself greater depth. His deliberate lyrical style focuses his intent while simultaneously blowing the message up to billboard scale. The music strikes a strange balance on Bed of Seeds. There’s plenty of boom-bap and classic ‘92 style beats: “Cold Crush” sounds like a long-lost Pete Rock production, “Where No One Can See” has an early 2000s Def Jux vintage, and the title track crushes like the best Rick Rubin amp-blowers. But elsewhere, a fake-folksy vibe prevails that jacks rhythms more typically heard on classic rock radio—stuff like Tom Petty, John Mellancamp, Bruce Springsteen. The acoustic sounds are too clean to sound like neo-Beck pastiche, and that works in Height With Friends’ favor. These songs are personal and openhearted, and the production cops that classic-rock vibe for that very reason. It’s a good, very unlikely fit. The “Friends” bring the old-school one-two responses to Height’s lyrics, and their upbeat presence keep the songs peppered with new voices—upping the fun quotient. It’s the “With Friends” aspect that makes Height even more human: he’s part of a community, a group, not disappearing into his own fears and hopes. With his friends in tow, Height’s world is at once very personalized—forest dreamworlds somehow birthed in Baltimore, MD—but his feelings and thoughts are made universal.

2.

buoyant funk-pop, Plastic Beach is aided by Albarn’s wild rolodex abandon. Roping in both Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg, the myriad cameos add up to cartoonish overkill (which is part of the fun, of course). Mark E. Smith’s indifferent-bordering-oncruel vocal turn on “Glitter Freeze” is at once scene-stealing

5. and barely present, but that’s all part of the Fall frontman’s “charm.” But the real secret weapon here is Bobby Womack, whose soulful desperate-man contributions to “Stylo” and deeper cut “Cloud of Unknowing” are as dazzling as any computer animation could hope to be.

3.

TRISTAN PERICH 1-Bit Symphony Cantoloupe Music

When was the last time you paid $25 for something in a jewel case? (Double-discs don’t count.) This past summer, I did it; I paid $25 for a jewel case. It didn’t even have a CD in it. It was a copy of Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony. Affixed to the case itself were six tiny bits of electronic hardware. From left to right: a battery, an on/off switch, a microchip, a button, a volume knob and a headphone jack. The music is on the microchip. You plug in your headphones, turn 1-Bit Symphony on, and away it goes. The entirety of the symphony’s five movements are composed of 1-bit sounds, more commonly heard in clock radios, microwaves or door buzzers. There is no nuance to these sounds: they are all attack, no decay; they are either

THE ROOTS Dilla Joints Independent Release

On Feb. 7 of this year, Questlove, The Roots’ drummer and bandleader, posted a download link to Dilla Joints on his Twitter. That would have been J Dilla’s 26th birthday. Dilla was the great reconsidered lost one of 2010, a vet who never got his due until the release of his opus, Donuts, in 2006, three days before he died of an obscure blood disease. In the years since, his voluminous work, going back 15 years—collaborations with A Tribe Called Quest, remixes for Janet Jackson, beats for Busta Rhymes—has been thoroughly reconsidered and reexamined. Dilla Joints is 14 tracks of Dilla’s beats being faithfully re-enacted by The Roots, those faithful re-enactors of drum machines and programmed beats. Dilla Joints is a loosey-goosey take on the rule-breaking Dilla, creatively thrived in practicing. Questlove carefully fucks up his beats and triplets just as carefully as Dilla intentionally programmed them, and his band dutifully brings all the Fender Rhodes, sirens, fuzzed-out bass and chicken-grease guitar that Dilla regularly employed. Questlove is heard throughout addressing his bandmates on how to play their riffs, creating an atmosphere of informal “what the fuck” fun. Yes, it’s for fun, but it’s also a thorough tribute. After a decade-plus career of rushing from one corner of the hip-hop spectrum to the next in earnest search of a huge audience, it’s super refreshing to see The Roots stretching out with something as relaxed as Dilla Joints. Jeff Tobias

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