Listening Back 

Style's music writers expound on superlative sounds from stereo to stage.


Music stores are dying out, commercial radio is a black hole with restrictive new Internet radio rules, and music criticism has finally, officially, retreated into its own navel. Meanwhile, recording artists have finally figured out that independent distribution is more profitable than living under the record-label plantation system. It's the end of the music as we know it.

Do we feel fine? Well, in a way, yeah. All of these ongoing developments, taken in the right spirit, seem potentially freeing. Maybe popular music — in all of its guises — needs to go back underground; maybe today's burgeoning music makers need to cultivate an outlaw's hungry appetite in order to survive.

Any way you listen to them, great sounds are still being made out there. From the most hyped mainstream singles to the tones wafting from your favorite local watering hole, Style Weekly's critics kept up with 2010's best music. The future may not look bright, but we're wearing these damn shades anyway. 

Promises and Excuses
2010 was a year filled with great songs, but there were comparatively few long-playing discs that held my interest. Is this a reflection of my own attention-deficit, channel-surfing aesthetic or a sad symptom of today's mp3 download culture?

Whatever the answer, my favorite CDs of the year managed to reward repeat listens: “Big Echo” by the Morning Benders (San Francisco indie rockers who take melodic rock to new heights — interestingly, two of the best tracks are called “Promises” and “Excuses”). Cee-Lo's “The Lady Killer.” (He's still the Soul Machine and anything but “crazy.”) Belle and Sebastian's “Write About Love,” a return to form for the Scottish pop rockers.  (You can actually dance to them this time.) “Crazy For You” by Best Coast (sunny-day pop that brings to mind everyone from Neko Case to “Sunflower”-era Beach Boys). Tame Impala's “Innerspeaker” (Loopy Australian psychedelic band lovingly manhandles its guitars), “To Dreamers” by Kelley Stoltz (a one-man-band with multiple personality disorder takes you on a Magical Mystery Tour — what are they putting in the San Francisco water these days?). And Janelle Monae's “The ArchAndroid” (Outkast's one-woman Brides of Funkenstein reworks new wave in her own image).

Rookie of the year honors go to Lord Huron, led by a Los Angeles auteur named Ben Schneider, who managed to out-Animal Collective the rest of the indie-rock mafia with the evocative “Into the Sun” EP. The Procrastination Certificate goes to Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse's spooky, long-delayed, and now (because of Mark Linkous' untimely death this spring) sadly posthumous, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Elsewhere, the CD reissues of the year were the expanded editions of the Rolling Stones' classic “Exile on Main Street” and Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," still his most vital and rocking release.

Honorable mentions include Surfer Blood, “Astrocast”; Harlem, “Hippies”; Gil Scott-Heron, “I'm New Here”; Broken Social Scene, “Forgiveness Rock Record”; Hula Hoop, “Mirror Universe Tapes”; Johnny Cash, “American IV: Ain't No Grave”; Love Language, “Libraries,” MGMT; "Congratulations," The Black Angels, "Phosphene Dream" and LCD Soundsystem, “This is Happening.” — Don Harrison, arts and culture editor

[image-2] Best Chills from 2010
Best live songs that gave me chills in 2010: Iranian musician Saeid Shanbehzadeh's ecstatic closing song of his opening-night performance at the Richmond Folk Fest (I posted a video of it on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/bestchills); Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh's impromptu climbing of a ladder to perform “Freedom of Choice” at the National; LCD Soundsystem's opening song, “Dance Yrself Clean,” which sent an electrical charge through the Charlottesville Pavilion crowd.

Best performance by a living legend: Merle Haggard at the National. Best college show: Mission of Burma at the University of Richmond. Most unlikely cover: Garrison Keillor and Sara Watkins singing Tom Waits' “Picture in a Frame” at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Best opening act: Scottish acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch for Neil Young at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington Best new music fest within driving distance: Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, N.C. It included Public Enemy, No Age, Panda Bear and many others at venues easy to reach on foot.

Best single by a local band: Amazing Ghost's new wave hip-hop anthem “Sam Samina.” Best local album: Fight the Big Bull with David Karsten Daniels “I Mean to Live Here Still.” Best local cover show: the Girtles performing early Beatles at Balliceaux. Best local reunion: Death Piggy and members of Alter-Natives reuniting for a musical history of Gwar at the big GwarBQ blowout. Best local singing doorman: Branch Clarke (Ghostdog and Cinnamon) at Balliceaux. Best local videos music and promos: Fuzzy Baby. Best news releases (by far): Gwar. Best local concert I missed because of a hangover: Ethiopian music collective, Debo Band, from Boston at Balliceaux. I heard it later and watched it online. Best onstage shout-out to Richmond: Bonnie Prince Billy at the National on the Grand Illumination. “It was like the three Magi welcoming us … just what we needed in the distance.” Best show for getting your young co-worker bloodied and bruised: Andrew W.K. at the Canal Club. Best local reissue on vinyl: Dynamic Truths' “Understanding Is Overrated” (Little Black Cloud Records). Best nonlocal instrumental album I heard this year: Budos Band “III” (Daptone), which brought the funky Fela tightness. Best new local record store: Steady Sounds. — Brent Baldwin, music editor

[image-3] Ring Them Bells
Among the year's best discs were Arcade Fire's “Suburbs,” Sufjan Stevens' “Age of Adz” and Deerhunter's “Halcyon Digest.” There were others, however, that deserved equal acclaim. Cacophony rockers Sleigh Bells made excellent use of 32 minutes by mashing up machine-gun beats and catchy hooks on “Treats.” The Love Language's “Libraries” gave us nostalgic songs that sounded like Morrissey fronting The Four Aces, while Merge labelmates Wye Oak released “My Neighbor/My Creator,” a stunning EP. The Carolina Chocolate Drops brought roots music to the forefront on “Genuine Negro Jig” and the Black Keys turned out another blues-induced romp on “Brothers.”

There were some worthy compilations that surfaced as well, among them the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's “Preservation,” a brassy benefit for the historic venue of the same name featuring Andrew Bird, Tom Waits and Jim James and “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine,” with heavy-hitters such as the Avett Brothers and Deer Tick covering Prine classics. Janelle Monae's “The ArchAndroid” and Ra Ra Riot's “The Orchard” gave us genre-defying beats and string combos. With high-hats and garagey guitars, “I'm Having Fun Now” from Jenny and Johnny, and the Dum Dum Girls' “I Will Be” satiated fluff-rock appetites. Lesser-knowns Phosphorescent and April Smith released some good ol' Americana as well. Also worth mentioning is the dance-floor juggernaut who is Robyn, whose “Body Talk” gives Lady Gaga some serious competition.

Memorable moments during live shows abounded, both in and out of town.   Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings danced with locals during their fiery set; Patty Griffin scared off a hellish storm and played under a double-rainbow at Lewis Ginter; and Sufjan Stevens brought confetti showers to the National. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes had us all sitting on the floor of the venue by show's end and Brandi Carlile spontaneously held a post-show meet-and-greet in the lobby. Cherry Bomb and Homemade Knives blew up the local scene, the latter of which knocked the socks off of an Ipanema crowd with a handful of Springsteen covers. Out Charlottesville way, Jenny & Johnny invited fans onstage at the Jefferson Theater; Sissy Spacek took in a St. Vincent show; and Sleigh Bells simply killed it at the Pavilion. — Hilary Langford

The Cream of the Urban Crop
Despite quality CD releases from the likes of Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo and a few others, 2010 largely sucked as far as new urban music was concerned.  Even more than in previous years, the music industry's short-sighted focus on singles and easily digestible radio hits trumped any need to reinvest in the album as a sellable art form. There were, however, some outstanding hip-hop and R&B concerts that graced a number of Virginia stages throughout the year. 

Best Album: Janelle Monae, “The ArchAndroid”

Monae's ethereally gorgeous concept album likely would have topped this list even if it had been released within an artistically stronger calendar year. It's just that good. The CD seamlessly melds a plethora of musical genres; including hip-hop, classical, new wave and jazz, while relaying the story of an android's love affair with a human. The album truly pushes past all boundaries to create brilliantly a new musical oeuvre that is alternately modern and retro. All 18 cuts are compelling in their own way, but the sonically bouncy “Wondaland,” the retro-funked “Tightrope” and the epic closing suite, “BabopbyeYa,” elevates “The ArchAndroid” to the rarified level of modern classic.

Runner-up: Bilal, “Airtight's Revenge”

Bilal's first proper follow-up to his 2000 debut finds the singer and songwriter eschewing the conventions of neosoul to craft a pleasingly lean album full of electric guitar flourishes and heavy bass lines. Songs such as “Restart,” “The Dollar” and “Cake & Eat It Too” illustrate an impressive level of lyrical growth while denoting the Philly native's ascended musical head space.

Best R&B Concert: Fantasia at Norfolk's Chrysler Hall on Nov. 5

The “American Idol” winner was still reeling from her many publicly aired personal dramas when she opened her first national headlining tour in Norfolk. The husky voiced dynamo silenced many of her staunchest critics in one evening's performance, which is no small achievement. — Jerome Langston

[image-4] The Shape of Jazz to Come
With all due respect to the great artists who came to Richmond this year — including Dave Douglas, Cyro Baptista and the SFO Jazz Collective — Richmond jazz in 2010 was defined by local players. The dynamic, entangled, mostly 20-something local bands continued to impress.

Fight the Big Bull's 2009 collaboration with Steven Bernstein (“All Is Gladness in the Kingdom”), followed closely by its work with alternative folk artist David Karsten Daniels (“I Mean to Live Here Still”) drew national attention to the band and the local scene. No BS Brass blew away audiences at the Richmond Folk Festival, and continues to draw enthusiastic crowds almost too big for local venues. Glows in the Dark covered a memorable set of Italian thriller movie themes — performed in Balliceaux to accompany enthusiastically sex- and violence-soaked previews. Bio Ritmo released a new EP, while a cadre of other youthful Richmond bands, including UTV, Lux Vacancy and Labragenda, continued to sculpt their own sonic territory.

Doug Richards' amazing, genre-bending concerto for trumpeter Rex Richardson was released on the latter's CD, “Magnum Opus.” Pianist Steve Kessler released “Three Trios,” notable for both justifying comparisons with the great jazz innovators and for being his first CD as a leader. Brian Jones continued to be at the epicenter of some of the most memorable events of the year — the Music Circus, the Mingus Awareness Project, which spawned the Adam Larabee Trio's great take on Duke Ellington's “Money Jungle,” and an eclectic series of monthly Tuesday night concerts at the Camel that brought together the area's best musicians.

There are always arrivals and departures. Longtime area stalwarts Bob Hallahan and Taylor Barnett were recruited to James Madison University in Harrisonburg. In return we got two Charlottesville musicians: Wells Hanley took Hallahan's place at Virginia Commonwealth University, and estimable trumpeter John D'earth is in for Barnett. One of the area's most successful exports, pianist Daniel Clarke (Mandy Moore, Ryan Adams, the Dixie Chicks, K.D. Lang) has moved back from the West Coast. (In accidental symmetry, Devil's Workshop founder Steve Norfleet simultaneously departed for the Bay area.)

Best NonRichmond CDs of the Year: “Ten” by Jason Moran; “Apex” by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green; “Hands” by Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela; “Mirror” by Charles Lloyd Quartet; “Initiate” by Nels Cline Singers; and “Solo” by Vijay Iyer.
— Peter McElhinney

[image-5] Locals Only
The celebrated space at 929 W. Grace St. has found new tenants who are intent on building a new legacy with Strange Matter. Texas transplants the Diamond Center were fully embraced by Richmond audiences, who were enticed to participate in the group's psychedelic freak outs. If you didn't see Amazing Ghost or the No BS Brass Band once this year, then you missed the (party) boat. 

Between the stunning new album “Signs and Wonders,” a collaboration with David Shultz under the Ophelia name, and organizing the quiet and unique Listening Room series, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird have given us many gifts this year. Vassar also scores an assist for the return of the beloved Homemade Knives. Leading the charge for cutting-edge, experimental rock were Bermuda Triangles and Ultra Dolphins, and a handful of notable Richmond musicians joined forces to scream their heads off as Heks Orkest.

There appears to be a renewed emphasis on album cover art, as illustrated by the Riot Before's inspired punk-rock record “Rebellion.” Richmond's punk underground has been building a critical mass through weekly do-it-yourself shows, with help from local stalwarts Hold Tight, Sundials and This is Your Life. Although “Lost Art” was released last November, Cloak/Dagger has spent the past year delivering the goods, including a sweaty set at Gallery5 during homegrown summer festival Best Friends Day, now in its ninth year. Spring's even-crustier Kollapse Fest also deserves a mention. For the “Virginia Is for Covers” benefit at Strange Matter, the talented participants delivered round after round of covers on their acoustics, ranging from serious to hilarious. Upon his return to the States, Jameson Price revived the music-film mash-up Silent Music Revival. Souvenir's Young America stands in a post-rock league of its own, as evidenced by the harmonica-laced the Name of the Snake. The National brought in three veteran acts that were surprisingly impressive: Alice In Chains, Deftones and ZZ Top, while accomplished locals Horsehead and Fighting Gravity singer Schiavone McGee both put out stellar albums.

The local music scene continues to flourish despite official efforts to stifle it. Indie-rock band Little Master successfully fought the city's arcane noise ordinance in court. Bands across Richmond rejoiced. — Mike Rutz


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