Top 5 Albums of 2010

January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Well, it’s that time again, although judging by the hundreds of year-end lists that have already appeared, I seem to be a little late. I don’t understand the preoccupation with forming year-end lists in early December. I mean the year isn’t even over by that point, I’d rather wait until January, which I have done. Anyway, if you read my Top Ten Pieces of Impacting Culture over at Mockingbird Blog you’ll notice a lot of overlap from that list to this one, as to be expected. I’ll be writing about five albums in particular, because I felt like picking ten was a bit of a stretch as I wasn’t able to listen to as much new music this year as I would have liked. So here’s the list, complete with Youtube videos galore.

1. The Age of Adz-Sufjan Stevens

I’m not sure what more I can say about The Age of Adz that I haven’t already said, but it continues to remain a revelation to me. By reinventing himself, Sufjan has created a masterful album full of strange noises and at times even stranger lyrics. But underneath all the alienating electronic buzz and depressing musings on life, runs a pulsing current of vitality, the same current that has always run through Sufjan’s music. This is Sufjan at his most personal, albeit slightly disguised behind the seemingly impersonal musical landscape, but I think this musical approach allows Sufjan to truly explore some of the darker corners of his personality without it become overbearing. Regardless, The Age of Adz is an amazing album, its joy tempered and then exalted through the very reality of life.

2. High Violet- The National

The National’s music is so beautiful, in part due to its understatement. Everything about The National seems relaxed, from their laid back music to their abstract lyrics. On closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The National is exploring deep emotions of the soul, often doing so through the mood created by their music and lyrics. High Violet does this exceedingly well, weaving tales of love, loss, fear, addiction and more together into an album that forces you to confront the insecurities and depressions of your own life. It’s an intense look into the soul and mind of the postmodern individual, revealing the struggles of most twenty-somethings that populate America right now, yet High Violet does manage to carry a sense of weathered hope, especially in its closing triad of songs.

3. Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons

If High Violet is beautiful in its understatement, then Sigh No More is beautiful in its zealousness. The neo-folk of Mumford and Sons is brash, hopeful and full of excitement. Blasting through its twelve songs, only stopping for breath briefly, Sigh No More is full of grand statements about life, love and God which is part of its charm. The British quartet is not afraid of wearing their collective heart on their sleeve, a refreshing change from some of the more emotionally guarded bands that exist. What I love about Mumford and Sons is that their optimism is grounded in reality. Sigh No More is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, but it never sugarcoats the realities and problems of life, but points to a hope that these problems will eventually be made right. A beautiful album measured with grace and humility.

4. How I Got Over-The Roots

How I Got Over is an album that has continued to grow on me since I first heard it in the late summer. The Roots are one of those groups that consistently release albums that are thoughtful both musically and lyrically which is something that I greatly respect. How I Got Over is a dark album that by its end has risen above the darkness in triumph, celebrating life for both its peaks and its valleys. There is a definite shift in the album toward hope as its approaches its midpoint, and this hope comes to fruition in the album’s climatic song The Fire. It is made all the more celebratory because of what came before it, a beautiful realization that sometimes life’s best moments are found after going through the storm.

5. The Suburbs-Arcade Fire

In my opinion, The Suburbs is the Arcade Fire’s best album. It manages to combine their unique musical approach with lyrics that are able to evoke strong emotions, while avoiding many of the problems people have had with their lyrics in the past. The Suburbs is an honest album, delving into the experience of growing up in the suburbs and what suburbia has done to America. It is both nostalgic and critical at the same time, a difficult balance to strike. Full of the bold instrumentation and soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire, The Suburbs continues in the same steps as its predecessors, but is better than those albums ever were.

Honorable Mentions:

Here’s a few albums that I couldn’t put on my top five list, but deserve to be listened to as they are a bit out of the ordinary.

P.A.R.C.E.-Juanes

Juanes is not incredibly well known by English speaking people, but is one of Latin America’s hottest recording artists, for a good reason. He makes great music, pop-rock infused with a Latin sensibility, and sings more than generic love songs. His latest album is another great piece of music and is well worth checking out.

All Day- Girl Talk

I mentioned this album in my blog about the mashup, and I’m still digging it. All Day is extremely fun and creative, combining various pop hits from the past four decades into a new creation that gives these old songs new life. It can be downloaded for free here.

Feedback- Derek Webb

I love Derek Webb and his new album is an instrumental exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. The album is a multimedia affair, coming with abstract art and photographs that complement the music. Webb is always one to try new things, and Feedback is a stunning piece of art that needs to be experienced through the ears and eyes.

The Mashup: Art?

December 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

In this technological era, the opportunities to create new forms of media are virtually endless. The tools of production have been democratized and with this anyone, regardless of their skill level, can create video or music and share it with the world via the Internet. These tools have spawned a new form of media, which I would hesitatingly call art, known as the mashup. The mashup combines elements from other, previously published works to form a hybrid, a synthesis of these pieces into a completely new thing. The mashup is primarily associated with music, although it can be seen in film as well, and while its origins can be debated, I would argue the most artful appropriation of elements from songs to help create something new is found in the hip-hop genre. Here artists use “samples” of other songs as a definitive element of their new song (think Kanye West and his use of outside material in the many hip-hop songs he produces).

One of the most famous mash-up artists is Pittsburgh’s Greg Gillis, who goes by the moniker Girl Talk. Gillis mashes up pop music from the past 40-50 years and often generates surprising results from conjoining 70′s pop ballads with club-bangers from the 00s. His newest album, All Day (which can be downloaded for free here), showcases Gillis’s talent for finding commonalities among many different genres of music and lyrical content. Some of these such moments are shockingly fun, such as when Simon and Garfunkel meet Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz or when I Want You Back meets with Lil Kim’s The Jump Off. Needless to say, these auditory nuggets are scattered all throughout All Day and make the album, if nothing else, an extremely entertaining listening experience.

Another well-known mashup artist is Steve Porter, the man behind the Press Hop video, or as it’s better known the video where Jim Mora and Allen Iverson verbally duel back and forth between “Playoffs?” and “Practice?”. Porter creates his own techno mix backgrounds, but overlays them with press conference sound bytes and their corresponding video segments. The results are often hilarious and quite catchy for being an amalgamation of press conference sound bytes. Once again, like Gillis, Porter’s talent lies in combining these phrases and videos into a coherent whole, smashing together different time periods and different sports to make something not entirely related to sports. I find myself returning, time and time again, to these videos when I need a laugh.

So are mashups just a form of entertainment, or can they be art? To be sure, they take talent, and I’m sure anyone who has actually attempted to make a mashup is aware of the time and skill it takes to make a good one. The creativity present in the music of Girl Talk and videos of Steve Porter is evident and manages to exude a certain sense of joy as you listen or watch their work. I think the mashup is an example of the kind of art that has begun to pervade postmodern culture. Instead of just drawing inspiration from past, artists are beginning to draw directly from the past and are using the past to create new content. This is known as pastiche, and reflects the postmodern individual’s fragmentation in this world, as there seems to be no historical referent from which to base his historical position. Therefore, as we don’t feel at home in history, music from the 70s can be seamlessly combined with music from the 90s without it seeming out of place.

The mashup reflects our current cultural state. Often it is played for humor, and it accomplishes this well by conflating the past and the present in an ahistorical manner that lends itself to parody and humor. In that sense, the mashup could be considered a postmodern form of art, one that comes from a new way of thinking and that is gaining steam. These artists are taking our meaningless bits and pieces of pop culture (pop songs and sports) and recreating them into things that live and breathe with an energy that wasn’t there in their original state. Whether you consider the mashup to be art or not, it’s something worth paying attention to as we consider the cultural climate we live in.

Press Hop 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffJvDgBrwMI

List of samples on All Day:  http://www.fastcompany.com/1707948/girl-talk-all-day-infographic

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