Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The AV Club's 50 Best Albums of the Decade Are All Wrong: Their Top 10 & Afterword

Intro & The AV Club's #50 - #31The AV Club's #30-#11
The AV Club's Top 10 & AfterwordAlan Greenspan Presents Our Top 10

by Mobutu Sese Seko with Rigamarock & Shwaywhat

(Note: all thumbnailed images go to Youtube videos of relevant songs from the band.)

10. The National, Alligator (2005)
"Alligator is The National’s third full-length, but the first that introduced a fully realized vision of the Brooklyn band: brooding, smart, and uniquely capable of soundtracking the ennui of rainy city life. It’s been accused of being boring, but it absolutely isn’t." Thanks, AV Club! Here's an idea: any time you feel compelled to frontload a single-paragraph blurb review of an album by addressing a common charge of it's being boring, it's boring. Just the fact that it's pretty much the first thing that comes to mind after placing the album in the band's chronology and placing the band geographically is a huge indicator that whatever point you're making is already a loser. "Brooding" and "soundtracking the ennui of rainy city life" are like two different rock-review variations on, "You're gonna love this girl! She's got a great personality."

9. Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)
No argument here. Jay-Z's an awesome rapper, although you have to admit that if his strangely huge mouth were red he'd look like the most offensive caricature in history. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it. Do not put your Jay-Z albums on your lawn near a mailbox. Do not write the word "Mammy" coming out of a talk bubble on a picture of Jay-Z. This is not funny. Nas should have named his would-be titled "Nigger" album "Minstrel" and just put a picture of Jay-Z on the front. It would have been the most massive dis track in history. He wouldn't even have had to say anything about Jay-Z on the whole record.

8. Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)
Surprisingly affecting, but like the Bart Simpson line about Smashing Pumpkins and sullen people in the crowd shuffling unhappily, making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel. The same goes for making a depressing album when all your band members are watching close family members die — which, presumably, is why they didn't name the album something more descriptive, like "Dirge." The first track and their first single, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" — which just misses out on achieving the acme of artbarf name schemes by its failure to include math — tells you everything you need to know about the band: sadness; non-rhyming free verse that sounds like a short story that got carriage-returned after hitting a syllable limit; and the lead singer "emoting" everything with a "WHAAAAHEEEY YOOOOOAAAIIIIIGGGGGHHH" vocal spasticity that sounds like David Byrne starring in the rock opera The Autobiography of Don Knotts.

7. Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
You've got to admire a band with the sort of technical artistry to take two drummers with two full drum kits when they play live and synch them so well that they achieve Def Leppardosity — also, a band where Johnny Marr can join them on his second decade of phoning it in and instantly sound as good as everyone else. Modest Mouse makes rock-and-roll blueballs with the persistent annoying mastery of a bar cover band's guitarist who plays a sick riff between songs that always seems like it's going to erupt into the guitar from "Last Dance with Mary Jane" and then never does. Every one of their albums crafts almost-great songs from almost-great ideas, this kind of monument to three-quarters-baked and -executed musicianship. You can keep leaning your head further and further toward the speaker in eager anticipation of the amazing rock and roll that's going to come out, but then, oops!—here's some quirky observation about atheism that really blew you away when you thought of it at age 12; and then, oops!—it's time for the song where they all yell for some reason, like they too are angry that they got halfway through it before realizing how much it sucked; and then, oops!—end of record.

6. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (2005)
The Hold Steady keep getting mentioned in the same breath as Bruce Springsteen. This seems to be the reason to get into them: "People are making new classic rock these days, gang! It's a lot like Springsteen." Then again, Bruce Springsteen is all like Springsteen. So why not listen to him? The problem is that Springsteen is mortal, so they want to hear more Springsteen from someone who's younger than he is, allowing the Springsteen mantle to be passed down to a new generation, repeatedly, ensuring a constant supply of Springsteen output through the ages and even past the point where we've evolved off our ears because we're telepathic now and perhaps bionic. The thing is, you can just pick up both of The Gaslight Anthem's LPs and get all the Springsteen homage, and none of the concept-album stuff about a catholic hooker who's also born again and named Holly (short for Hallelujah) and who knows a pimp named Charlemagne — because, Jesus fucking Christ, lmao.

5. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Listening to Wilco make sonic landscapes is like watching an architect work an Etch-a-Sketch. Fronted by singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy, this band couldn't have a more twitchily uptight emasculated and off-putting lead persona if he were dubbed "Denton Toucher, the Guy Who Can See You When You're Peeing." The single most memorable thing about this band is the almost systematic obstacles that faced their issuing the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which is the sort of underdog story we can all get behind until we have to listen to the damn thing — then realize it's like watching a documentary about all the accidents at the Harland and Wolff shipyards and hoping the engineers can overcome them to get the Titanic sailing on time. You couldn't root harder for a more undeserving little guy if it turned out one of the midgets who faced Hulk Hogan in a gimmick match in the 1980s raped a kindergarten.

4. OutKast, Stankonia (2000)
Outkast represents possibly the ultimate in Dad Rap: the hip-hop artist that all members of the white family will enjoy — from dad stepping back from world music eclecticism or out of his Foghat and giving these fellows a try, to junior rounding out his Offspring collection with something off-beat — but which most serious hip-hop fans don't really give a shit about. It certainly doesn't hurt that they wear weird suits that remind people of Jimmy Hendrix and the occasional bowtie-and-suspenders getup that calls to mind George Will and Tucker Carlson. This isn't to imply that Big Boi or André 3000 are aiming for this audience; it's just that it doesn't hurt. (What they're trying for, on the other hand, doesn't help. They want to have it both ways, the socially conscious rapper and the bad-boy, the R&B/jazz and the rap, etc., and I'm sorry, but this is the fucking marketplace. You get a label and operate under it for your career. Unless you're David Bowie. And these guys aren't.) When this album started getting big, people fell all over themselves to explain how this wasn't "just" hip-hop; it was jazz; it was the old form made new; they even used instruments! It was like white America couldn't have been prouder that these negro fellows found the complex noisemakers that those nice people who used to play disco put down a couple decades ago. Outkast essentially stands as a kind of socially imperialist talisman to be borne about the discourse as a way of warding off comments that post-punk and post-rock and alt-rock and alt-country and electronica-loving music reviewers aren't sufficiently diverse and don't actually like/understand hip-hop or anything blacker than Seattleites playing Fusion Klezmer.
More details about the album itself would have been provided, but the word "stank" in any iteration has been too unpleasant to engage ever since Hoobastank's disgusting mockery of Iranian freedom fighters by flooding Twitter with disguised links to Goatse. Unfortunately, from now on, when you talk about stank, the foulest will always be The Hoob.

3. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
Here's everything you need to know about Radiohead for the last 10 years: they used to make really cool songs that you could sing with other people and listen to in the background at a party, then they stopped doing that, and everyone who thought that sucked got told by People Who Are Important that they "just weren't getting it." There's not a lot to get. Radiohead created a large and devoted fanbase off making conventional rock songs with some airy atmospherics and a sense of oddity — like Pink Floyd for Dummies. Then in 2000 they shit out an "art" whose creation seemed to be a deliberate attempt to remove every aspect of their music that created mainstream appeal. Now, millions of people like Kid A, and millions more people don't and think those other people are douchebags. The problem is that those who dislike it are routinely told that their judgment is immature and that their failure to take pleasure in the music stems from some critical insufficiency on their part. Which is stupid, because at the same time as they cut out the mainstream sound from Kid A, Radiohead also seemed to turn up everything that was already dislikable about them to 11. For instance, Thom Yorke already looks like Sloth from The Goonies with his Stu Scott eye and his fucked-up and perpetually incredibly moist face — like Sloth glancing up from the toilet after vomiting up a dozen beers — but right out of the gate on "Everything in Its Right Place" you've got a track whose lyrics are
eerrrreeeee errrrtheeeee
eeeermlleeeeeee urrrbblllllnyeeeeuuuhhh
You've already heard these lyrics every time a girl you knew got drunk and started crying. The thing is, nobody really gave a shit that Thom Yorke wailed and bubbled like a wet, nasal fuckass in the past because he was doing it in the middle of pop songs whose purpose was to make you enjoy them. As soon the band switched things up to making alienatingly repetitive soundscapes and Yorke using his voice as an instrument, it became impossible to ignore that he sounds exactly like John Lovitz playing "Annoying Man."
Here's something else: right as they released Kid A, they announced they were releasing Amnesiac. Granted, it's almost jeeringly arrogant to release your B material right after releasing your A material, claim it's not B material and expect everyone take it equally as seriously. But that's not the point, here. The point is: people actually insisted you buy Amnesiac to "get" Kid A. Like, here, please shell out an additional $15 for the supplemental material that will allow you to "unpack" the thing you just spent $15 on. At best that's just fan idiocy, people so determined to like a band's product that they will bend over backward to find a reason why your not enjoying it means anything other than it fucking sucks. But more importantly, it points up how absurd it is to rank this album so highly on any list like this. If the message in your piece of art is so inscrutable or annoying that it requires the alternately pleading and castigating mediation of slavish devotees or the purchase of another art entirely, you have fucking failed.
Every single person who threw a fit of Aspergian twitchiness as soon as they saw this album wasn't listed at #1 is a better argument for why this album sucks than anything anyone could write — except this, which was written by one of those people.

2. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
I don't care about black people.

1. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)
The White Stripes are awesome. "Seven Nation Army" is awesome. Do you like the White Stripes? Of course you do. Everyone does. But no way is this album the best of the decade. Everyone likes the Stones, too (or else are broken in some way), but almost nobody but Stones nuts would try to pick any of their albums for album-of-the-decade status, in any of the four decades they've been releasing music. That's because 40 years later, the majority of people can't name more than three tracks off Beggars Banquet. There's "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" and whatever third one people remember. That's not because people are stupid or Philistines who can't experience something unless spoon-fed to them via promoted singles. (Hell, the Stones enjoyed the whole album-oriented rock era, where you could hear whole LPs on the airwaves.) It's because most Stones albums have two or three gems, then two or three tracks that are pretty good if you have the album and about four you will never need. And here's the thing: the White Stripes have entered our consciousness pretty much the same way: straight rock, couple great songs, lots of other stuff. Ask someone who actually owns Elephant (and didn't experience it piecemeal via MP3s) what their favorite tracks are, and you'll get "Seven Nation Army" and a couple others, and maybe an explanation like, "I also like the one that goes like, 'nuh nuh nuh nuh,'" and so on. The one White Stripes song that 99% of people know — in fact, the only White Stripes song most people know — isn't even on this goddamn album. It's one thing to split hairs and pick a band's greatest song and a band's greatest album and have them be from two different albums if both works have sunk into the cultural consciousness to equal degree. Nobody's really going to give a shit if you decide "Kashmir" is the iconic Zeppelin song, but that Led Zeppelin II is really their artistic apotheosis. Everyone knows everything about both anyway. It's a whole different donkey when you start handing out awards to bands with massive mainstream success but single out an album that many people who can recite one of their singles over and over don't even know exists.

Fifty fucking entries, and not one ELO album? You don't even need to read all those words to know that's bullshit.

It's probably no coincidence that a website whose comment board seems to be caught in such a terrible temporal nerd loop from 2000 that its registered users race to get "firsties" likewise fetishizes so much stuff outside the mainstream. It's a reductive and over-employed complaint on message boards (which is why it was rarely mentioned above), but there really are people who automatically assign higher value to music that's regionally oriented and experienced and thus something they can find before others — the sort of people who probably think the Pacific's totally overrated if you weren't there looking at it with Balboa. There's a thrill of both discovery and possession if you get to be the maven who unearths something and then disseminates it to a wider audience. This, along with the lazy dismissal of the mainstream that suggests anything everyone knows must be something that can only appeal to everyone by being trite, works as a kind of reinforcing loop. It's better because it's not popular, and it's not popular because it's better. Most of all, it's better because I found it before all you people, and as soon as you know about it, every word-of-your-mouth robs it of whatever "it" is.

If they'd had any sense of proportion or social justice, the AV Club would have just linked to AP news summaries about the third world for the last 10 years and credited them all to Zach de la Rocha and put him in the top ten. You like those Banana Republic Chinos, do you? Well fuck you, dad.

Most people out of college and at a point in their lives where they no longer exuberantly and embarrassingly overreact to music probably only buy about 10 new albums a year. To get them to name their 50 best albums of the decade, they're picking every other one. To get a sample with any sort of perspective, they'd need to be picking through 250 albums or more per decade, jumping out of their comfort zone and not only being exposed to mere nuggets of different genres but the full spectrum of each genre. Yet, with the AV Club staff, these are people who write almost daily, who interview celebrities, review film, write TV blogs, write general pop-culture essays, interact with the audience and otherwise have job shit to do. The chances that they listen with undivided interest and full understanding to even 25 albums per year seems almost vanishingly small. That's probably not a problem when you've got a large staff and can make a top-50 list by cobbling together everyone's niche interests. But on the other hand, that's why you get a list of the 50 Best Albums of the Decade where even a relatively knowledgeable reader is going to say, "Who the fuck are these people?" at 20 of the entries.

Someone needs to create a "Build Your Own Brent DiCrescenzo Metaphor" generator. Here's one that occasional contributor Mr. Awesome dropped on me:
The robotic aspects of my persona, torn red and human by the knife-sharp soundscape, which rose, wave-like, rose-colored, wept enigmatic robot tears into the pages of my moleskine notepad. Which spelled out the name of my dad.

Probably 75% of the rock bands listed have a Q rating of maybe 2, yet almost all the hip-hop is mainstream top-40 stuff. Why? A quick guess is that this is what happens when fey and Fey-glassed midwesterners turtle up into the safe world of indie darlingdom so much that they probably have to read other reviewers to find out what this "rap" thing is, then parrot what they found out from people who exist in a world without cardigans.

Lists like these are always fundamentally schizophrenic. Usually, the idea is to give a general look at the 50 best albums of the decade, unpacking all the music available so that any idiot or neophyte can come in and get a good grounding in the best things of the last ten years. The problem is, the sort of people who seriously care about music(!) have no use for these sorts of lists, because they already think they know the 50 best albums of the decade. Moreover, they already know short-answer arguments for why certain albums should be on there. Thus, in order to give them something to bite on, the lists move away from the general and into the niche, with writers defending their choices self-consciously with highly specialized references to other music that beginners can't be expected to understand. It winds up a dog's breakfast of Well, Duh choices surrounded by a bunch of Who the Fuck? choices, in a confused formula that satisfies no one. Worse, the attempt to appeal to the sort of people who drive the most traffic to these sites — i.e. music wonks who care enough to get angry about this shit and go clicky-clicky-click — brings out the absolute absurdities of these two competing forces. Thus you have Jay-Z at #9 — an album people are still going to be listening to, on terrestrial radio, in 20 years — hot on the heels of The National at #10, a band whose entire fans in the state of Florida couldn't fill the stadium at the Orange Bowl next week. Surely many of their fans believe they are doing very important things with music, but if almost nobody knows that, does it matter? We've become so obsessed, artistically, about not missing the next Van Gogh that we forget that Van Gogh had hundreds of non-mainstream contemporaries who were rightfully forgotten.

Intro & The AV Club's #50 - #31The AV Club's #30-#11
The AV Club's Top 10 & AfterwordAlan Greenspan Presents Our Top 10