Best Albums of 2010

[Note: With the exception of Shutter Island, these are not albums released in 2010; just ones I discovered and enjoyed then.]

5. “The Execution of All Things,” Rilo Kiley.

I am a nerdy, emo Michigan football fan. You are not a nerdy, emo Michigan football fan, so this probably won’t make much sense at all to you. Nevertheless:

In 2008, Michigan endured probably the most painful season in its football history, which is especially notable once you take into account that the ensuing two seasons weren’t much better. They went 3-9 in 2008, with precious few big plays and even fewer legitimate highlights.

So before the 2009 season, when a blogger at MGoBlog decided to put together a highlight package of the previous campaign, it hardly seemed right to include lots of out-of-context touchdowns during 42-7 losses. So he put together a highlight of sad plays—interceptions, fumbles, blown coverages, the like—followed by a string of actual highlights which seemed even better after the mellow beginning of the video, like the way sunshine feels more wonderful after the rain. Accompanying the nearly five-minute video was the song “A Better Son/Daughter” by the rock band Rilo Kiley.

Retrospectively, the song has come to symbolize the Rich Rodriguez era—sad at the beginning with a hopeful future never quite realized. It will not carry over to the Brady Hoke era; nay, it’s time to RAWK.

The one song has developed a cult following among Michigan superfans,* but I discovered the rest of the album “The Execution of All Things,” is not only pretty good, but also served as my introduction to indie rock. So hooray for that.

*I admit sheepishly that I listened to it before games on occasion, and it’s quaintly appropriate for what I feel. Okay wow, that’s emo. Ick.

Also: if you listen to it, enjoy but beware BAD WORDS.

4. “Sextet—Six Marimbas,” Steve Reich.

I once had to do this really weird assignment for a journalism class at school. Take a sort-of-famous person who could possibly die sometime soon and write an early obituary. I picked Steve Reich, one of my favorite modern classical composers. The obit wasn’t great, but I wrote about his signature phasing technique in the piece and produced what I think is an apt descriptor of his music. Phasing loops a singular motif with another, speeding up the second slightly to create a consistent, repetitive sound. I noted that this effect, like the rest of his music, is at first cacophonous, then hypnotic, and finally profound.

This is true of “Sextet”—a five-movement symphony-type-substance that applies phasing (among other things) using a piano, bells, and at least two xylophones—and “Six Marimbas,” a sixteen-minute long piece of the same form.

This repetitive, percussive music might be an acquired taste. I’m pretty sure I’ve always liked it. It gives the listener a feeling of space along with a profound sense that there’s something he’s missing in the oppressive, deeply-complex triads. These are some of the best qualities of great music. Worth a listen.

3. “Shutter Island,” Various Artists.

I liked this movie immensely, and it will reappear in my Best Movies of 2010 post later. The soundtrack is similarly good.This album is a conglomeration of different artists, many of which are the avant-garde type in modern classical, my preferred genre (Brian Eno, John Adams, John Cage, Max Richter). Martin Scorcese, Shutter Island’s director, has shown appreciation for minimalistic music in the past, having asked Philip Glass to compose the music for Kundun.

Because of the various styles represented by each composer and performer, there’s a notable difference between the individual tracks. The ominous Inception-esque single-note cello blast in “Symphony #3: Passagalia” is followed by the schmaltzy 1950’s crooning of a Johnny Ray song, “Cry.”

Nam June Paik’s “Hommage a John Cage” is outright disturbing but unquestionably intriguing, and John Adams’ “Christian Zeal and Activity”— a slow, sentimental commentary on the ludicrousness of evangelical television preachers—is included.

Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” is in many ways the theme of the film, and its tragic, lachrymose violin solo aptly reflects the profound sadness of the movie itself.

2. “Harmonium,” John Adams.

This album isn’t really much of an album at all, but a collection of three poems put to music. The poetry is provided by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and “Wild Nights”), and the music by—surprise—John Adams.

The first piece starts serenely, soon giving way to the wide, drawn out chanting of the chorus and finally a brief sprout of excited joy at the words If any who deciphers best / What we know not—ourselves—can know / Let him teach me that nothing. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is slow and dirgeful (but not in a trite way)—just as it seemed when we first read it in 10th Grade English class.

“Wild Nights” opens with a suppressed trembling violin energy just beneath the surface, eventually erupting in spurts and geysers of orgastic choir and trombone-led euphoria at the lines Wild Nights! Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury! The piece then abruptly shifts, hitting the breaks and slowing, cooling into a quiet, repetitive, even introspective ode to the sea. Ah! the sea! / Might I but moor / Tonight In thee!

While an obvious expression of the speaker’s own longing for coital ecstasy, Adams’ music brings the text deeper, making it resonate with the listener’s Edenic longing—expressed partially in a brief but poignant trumpet solo toward the end—and the heavy sense of loss carried in final, heartbreaking ruminations of the french horn.

If you feel like giving it a listen now, go here for the middle part through the end.

1. “IBM 1401 a User’s Manual,” Johann Johannsson.

I discovered this composer the summer before my junior year of college, while visiting old friends during a quick road trip with my sister. “Let’s listen to some Johann Johannsson,” my friend said as he turned the wheel on his iPod classic, and I thought he was joking.

I soon came to enjoy the music of the Icelandic post-rock/post-classical composer, making my way from “Fordlandia” over to some of his earlier work—“Englaborn” and the like. Last March I discovered “IBM 1401, a User’s Manual,” which was inspired by Johannsson listening to stories about the machine from his father, who worked for IBM in Iceland in the 1960s. In an essay about the work, Johannsson writes that “the computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out – captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.” In other words, you could make it sing.

The five-part piece is a robust retrospective on the brief life of the IBM 1401 machine, opening nostalgically, moving toward sadness, and eventually closing with the machine’s own plaintive solo, matching closely the very human story of lost love in the tragic words: The sun’s gone dim and they sky’s turned black / ‘Cause I loved her and she didn’t love back.

Perhaps more relevant now than ever with the advent of “Watson,” the human-like thinking machine, “IBM 1401, a User’s Manual” gets close the heart of questions about what if means to be human and, perhaps, the unintended consequences of rapid, unfettered technological innovation.

I would be very, very remiss if I didn’t point you to Johannsson’s excellent essay about this piece, from inception to performance, here.

Other notables: “The Bends,” Radiohead; “The Cave,” Steve Reich; “Fordlandia,” Johann Johannsson; “Songs of Christmas,” Sufjan Stevens.


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