My Favorite Albums of 2010

Album of the Year

Paramore, Brand New Eyes
Music Math: Avril Lavigne + No Doubt + late Green Day
Best Tracks: "Careful," "Playing God," "Brick by Boring Brick," "All I Wanted"
Representative Lyrics: "I scraped my knees while I was praying / And found a demon in my safest haven / seems like it's getting harder to believe in anything / and get lost in all my selfishness"
Notes: Although this album came out last year, I didn't really get into it until after I'd posted last year's list. A shame, because this album and this band became the most listened to music for me this year. I love Hayley Williams's gymnastic vocals, particularly when she unleashes her potential on the soaring "All I Wanted," although she's equally comfortable snarling insults on "Ignorance" and "Playing God." It's a shame the cute boys left the band this year, but as they suspected, they were really just the scaffolding for Hayley's talent and promise.

Honorable Mention

Ke$ha, Animal/Cannibal
Music Math: (Madonna - dancing) + (Peaches - England) + Salt-N-Pepa
Best Tracks: "Blah Blah Blah," "Kiss N Tell," "Dinosaur," "Boots and Boys," "We R Who We R," "Crazy Be/autiful Life," "C U Next Tuesday"
Representative Lyrics: "Now we lookin like pimps in my gold Trans Am / Got a water bottle full of whisky in my handbag"
Notes: If you are not a 14-year-old girl or a grown gay man, you probably dislike Ke$ha (you probably dislike her if you are a grown gay man; I'm really just trying to salvage a little of my pride here). She's brash, she's dubiously talented, she's vulgar. Yes. She is the John Waters of contemporary pop music. But her similarities to Madonna are a little striking--Madonna was also reviled as a talentless provacateur (remember the wedding dress performance? People thought it was sacrilege!). The music is fun and influence by late 80s/early 90s girlrap as much as it is contemporary electronica. I'll wait and see what else she does, but for now, I'm down with her bold sexuality and shamelessness. It's what we need right now.

Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops and Hooligans
Music Math: Mark Ronson - England + Americana
Best Tracks: "Just the Way You Are," "Grenade," "Runaway Baby"
Representative Lyrics: "I'd catch a grenade for ya / Throw my hand on a blade for ya / I'd jump in front of a train for ya / You know I'd do anything for ya"
Notes: Bruno Mars is fun and he has a very pretty voice.

Daniel Merriweather, Love & War
Music Math: Mark Ronson - England + Sean Astin + Australia
Best Tracks: "Impossible," "Change," "Chainsaw"
Representative Lyrics: "Giving myself to you / is like giving myself to a chainsaw / You keep cutting me open / Why's that the only thing that you're good for?"
Notes: Daniel had a song on Mark Ronson's album Version (a great cover of The Smith's "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"). His album sounds a lot like that song did, a neo-souly throwback. The best thing going for him is his distinctive voice.

Far East Movement, Free Wired
Music Math: (Black Eyed Peas - nausea) + irreverence + 1/2 Devo
Best Tracks: "If I Was You (OMG)," "Like a G6," "White Flag"
Representative Lyrics: "Sippin on, sippin on sizz, Ima ma-make it fizz / Girl i keep it gangsta, poppin bottles at the crib / This is how we live, every single night / Take that bottle to the head, and let me see you fly"
Notes: Far East Movement is the first Asian American music group to score a top ten hit on the American pop music charts. How crazy is that? This album is a dance party in mp3 clothing--you just put it on and you can't help dance along (or laugh when Snoop Dogg raps "O-M-G"). Their songs are immediately accessible; "White Flag" in particular sounds very familiar, like a late 80s/early 90s jam.

Florence + The Machine, iTunes Live from SoHo
Music Math: Kate Bush + Loreena McKennitt
Best Tracks: "Drumming Song," "Cosmic Love"
Representative Lyrics: "The stars, the moon / They have all been blown out / you left me in the dark"
Notes: The live version of the Florence + the Machine's songs are delightfully distinct from their studio counterparts while giving Florence's voice an opportunity to come out of all the production and take its place in the spotlight. The acoustic touches--harp, in particular--add to her unique blend of archaic and modern.

Hole, Nobody's Daughter
Music Math: Live Through This + 10 years of bad road
Best Tracks: "Samantha," "Skinny Little Bitch," "Loser Dust"
Representative Lyrics: "People like you f*** people like me / in order to avoid suffering"
Notes: "Raw" and "broken" aren't hyperbole when discussing this album, but, if anything, it is truly a labor of Courtney Love. This album returns to the grungey sounds of Live Through This and bring all its disillusioned, angry, and heartbroken friends. While her singing has definitely gone into decline, the music is as Hole as Hole gets--and the impassioned earnestness is still there, and still true.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Music Math: Kanye West + everyone he knows + hubris
Best Tracks: "All of the Lights," "Power," "See Me Now"
Representative Lyrics: "It's like that, y'all / I don't really give a f*** about it at all / because the same people who tried to black ball me / forgot about two things: my black balls."
Notes: I'm almost as surprised as you are that this album is on my list. I liked 808 and Heartbreak a lot, and this is quite different--this is arena-style Kanye, pumping out giant anthemic sound with 800 of his closest friends. His lyrics both own and flaunt his legendary hubris, but all that attitude is backed up here by the unexpected blend of sounds he's put together.

Kate Nash, My Best Friend Is You
Music Math: Lily Allen - alcohol + 1950s doo wop + punk
Best Tracks: "Paris," "Kiss That Grrrl," "Do Wah Do," "Mansion Song"
Representative Lyrics: "I bet she doesn't like to eat / I bet her feet don't even stink"
Notes: Kate Nash is cheeky. Her new album sounds more polished than Made of Bricks but maintains the sort of unabashed irreverence that made it so much fun. The songs here again are often about boys or relationships, but they've got a good beat and you can dance to them. Nash brings a punk tinge to some songs, like "Mansion Song," which features an NC-17 performance poem as its opening.

Katy Perry, Teenage Dream
Music Math: Peaches/Jars of Clay
Best Tracks: "E.T.," "Teenage Dream," "California Gurls," "Last Friday Night"
Representative Lyrics: "I smell like a minibar / DJ passed out in the yard / Barbie's on the BBQ / Is this a hickey or a bruise?"
Notes: Perry's sophomore effort ratchets up her "burlesque" approach to sex while focusing more clearly on the saccharine aftertaste of love. It's amazing to me that, seemingly unintentionally, this album contradicts itself between her belief that she is chosen ("Who Am I Living For?") and can still be a skanky ho who has a menage a trois in the park ("Last Friday Night").

Liz Phair, Funstyle
Music Math: (Liz Phair - 15 years) + 15 years of wisdom
Best Tracks: "Bollywood," "Smoke," "Oh Bangladesh," "And He Slayed Her"
Representative Lyrics: "Lemme see, it's here in my folder / oh shit, you're twenty years older / still hot but getting a lot colder / and you want to cut a what with me?"
Notes: The album that caused Liz to break with both her label and her management is easily her snarkiest and most satirical since Exile in Guyville. With a wizened eye, she attacks both the music industry's double standards and the values of a culture more concerned with coffee sprinkles than raising children with good ideals.

M.I.A., Maya
Music Math: Bjork + Gwen Stefani + the kitchen sink
Best Tracks: "XXXO," "Born Free," "Teqkilla," "Lovealot"
Representative Lyrics: "I fight the ones who fight me"
Notes: It's clear that M.I.A. threw everything she had into this album, making it both her most interesting and her most accessible. She embraces pop beats on "XXXO" but aims at her critics in "Teqkilla" and bigots in "Born Free."

Natasha Bedingfield, Strip Me
Music Math: Prozac + Unicorns
Best Tracks: "Strip Me," "All I Need," "Neon Lights"
Representative Lyrics: "Every day I fight for all my future somethings / a thousand little wars I have to choose between / I could spend a lifetime earning things I don't need / but that's like chasing rainbows and coming home empty."
Notes: The pop chanteuse who brightened our lives with "Unwritten" is back with another album full of affirmations in the form of pop songs. The good news is they're good pop songs, and they leave a calorie-free aftertaste!

Scissor Sisters, Night Work
Music Math: Chic x Bee Gees
Best Tracks: "Any Which Way," "Fire With Fire," "Something like This," "Sex and Violence"
Representative Lyrics: "If they play that song maybe / you'll come dancing back to me / I can't remember any words / There's a verse after it goes / something like this"
Notes: They said it was the best Scissor Sisters album yet, and they're not wrong. They seem to have abandoned their kitschy attitude about themselves; this album feels much more authentic and sincere than the others did. Ana Matronic fades into the background here--a crime--as Jake Shears takes over the helm, perhaps to a fault.

Sleigh Bells, Treats
Music Math: Toni Basil + Portishead
Best Tracks: "Tell 'Em," "Riot Rhythm," "Infinity Guitars," "A/B Machines"
Representative Lyrics: "Deaf chords, dead ends / Sling set can't meet their demands / Dumb whores, best friends / Infinity guitars, go 'head"
Notes: This band shows how much sound you can make with just two people, a microphone, and a computer. The songs come out like a dark pep rally with chanted lyrics, snarling guitars, and thumping rhythms. It's lots of fun!

Tegan and Sara, Sainthood
Music Math: Indigo Girls - earnestness
Best Tracks: "Arrow," "Hell," "Alligator"
Representative Lyrics: "Would you take a straight and narrow / critical look at me / Would you tell me tough-love style / put judicial weight on me?"
Notes: Pumping up their folky sensibility with more ambitious production, louder guitars, and stronger beats, the next evolution of Tegan and Sara finds them still lyrically interesting but much more accessible.




As many of you know, one of my favorite bands experienced a significant rupture this week. Paramore lost two of its (cutest) founding members, Josh and Zac Farro, and while Haley and the other two are resolved to go forward, I can't help feeling like I caused this. Let me explain.

I have a track record. Some people are, you know, really bad at dating and leave in their wake a trail of broken, destroyed hearts. My wake is full of broken bands, broken dreams, forgotten LPs. Since I was a teenager, the bands I've loved have experienced that most monumental of changes: break-up. Here, I'd like to take a moment and share my memories of the most difficult break-ups:

Panic at the Disco
Formed: 2004
Destroyed: 2009

I was as surprised as you were when Panic first dropped their exclamation point (Panic!) and then bifurcated into two groups: the persisting Panic at the Disco and the Young Veins, a 1950s-inspired Beach Boys redux. Their first album was equal parts The Killers and Fall Out Boy, and their second equal parts mescaline and The Beatles' Sargent Pepper. Since the split, there's been no activity from the half of the band I still like, unfortunately. Boys, I'm out here waiting.

Formed: 2002
Destroyed: 2010

You're like, "Who's this band?" But that's because you're not gay and/or don't hang out regularly in gay bars, where this band's campy indictment "Chelsea" was a standard for about a year. Their only release, The Orange Album, is awesome--fun pop music. A few months ago I read an update that the second album I've been waiting 4 years to hear isn't happening, and Stefy Rae released a solo single for the Sorority Row soundtrack. Which I almost bought.

Veruca Salt
Formed: 1993
Destroyed: 1998

Veruca Salt formed when actress (and Nick Flynn's girlfriend?) Lily Taylor introduced Nina Gordon and Louise Post, who formed the powerhouse harmonizing vocal and guitar section of this band. Their first album was notable for pairing distinctly feminine childhood experiences and pressures against a fuzzing backdrop of guitar rock. It was the 90s. We did things like that. In 1998, the women had a monumental falling out and the band, under Post's guidance, completely reformed, but was never the same band. Gordon went on to release a single that belonged on adult contemporary rock radio, a song that probably nursed many a high school freshman through a nasty break up of her own.

Fall Out Boy
Formed: 2001
Destroyed: 2010

Pete Wentz (Mr. Ashlee Simpson) and Patrick Stump were the core of this band, contributing words and bass (Wentz) and music and vocals (Stump) for a few albums. They were definitely a powerpop rock band if there ever was one, but what set them apart were Wentz's irreverent and often punning lyrics (representative song title: "I"m Like a Lawyer with the Way I'm Always Getting You Off"), but the real star, realized perhaps too late or not at all but mainstream media, was Stump's voice. Athletic, robust, and seemingly unlimited in range, it was unbeatable in rock music. But it seems like fame, and maybe some competition, split everyone up. Wentz went off to lick his wounds with Ashlee, while Stump has tried (and ostensibly failed) to launch a solo act in which he, perhaps overcompensating, plays all the instruments.

Luscious Jackson
Formed: 1991
Destroyed: 2000

Electric Honey was one of my favorite albums of the late 90s, and for Luscious Jackson, it seemed to represent a complete gelling of their formerly eclectic sound, influenced by pop, rock, and hip hop in equal parts. It was also their swan song, as it turned out, and the band evaporated not long after. Now, I get excited when I watch the "Beer Bad" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 6), when Buffy watches the video to "Ladyfingers" while drunk out of her increasingly Neanderthal skull.

Ben Folds Five
Formed: 1993
Destroyed: 2000

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was released just as I was on the cusp of graduating from college, and its "wtf am I doing with my life" anthem "Army" was especially significant. Ben Folds Five's blend of piano, blues, and rock, along with smarmy and/or heartfelt lyrics, was fun at best and totally gutwrenching at worst ("Brick"). They were gone too soon, and none of Ben's solo albums ever lived up to the group's promise.


Out with the Old

We are celebrating the end of the calendar year by going through our tiny apartment room by room to nominate items for voting off our island.

Today: kitchen, "dining room," hall closets, living room. Tomorrow: bedroom, bathroom.

We have a small cluster of items whose utility has outlived our need for them--clothes, some books, and random household stuff. In a related story, taking everything out of its place, examining it, and putting it back smarter has resulted in better organization and, at least for now, the illusion of more space.

Although I'm not a naturally spatially-neat person, having an orderly environment is actually important to normal brain functioning for me. When the mess starts to get out of hand, my anxiety builds. Having a lot of stuff (as we do) creates a lot of tension because of this.

We plan to move soon, so this is partly prep for the inevitable "Honey, THIS? Do we need to move this several hundred miles to make our lives complete?" conversations.

Today we did not bring our A game. We brought our B- game. We did okay. The pile is about 1/4 of our "dining room." It could be bigger. And perhaps after we finish off the rest of this place, it will be.

Wish us well.


Somebody's Miracle


I'm going to see Liz Phair this weekend. I'm really excited. It's my favorite DC venue: the 9:30 club. It's small, very intimate.

The last time I saw Liz Phair was in 1999. She played at the University of Minnesota, where I was about to graduate. The student activities committee brought her in--the "Major Events" group was in charge, but I had a sort of tertiary awareness of it as I was the co-chair of "Bijou Films" that year, running a couple of small film series on campus. My colleague on the committee picked her up from the airport and drove her to the show. I was very jealous.

It was her tour for whitechocolatespaceegg, an album I loved. I still love it: "Big Tall Man," "What Makes You Happy," "Johnny Feelgood," "Shitload of Money," and of course "Ride."

Torry went to that concert with me. In a move very characteristic of him, he threw a note to her onstage that some stagehand whipped away before it even touched the ground. We stood at the front of that show together. It was so long ago maybe I was a different person. Liz Phair is short. We were almost the same height, even with her standing on the stage. Granted, it was a little stage in a little hall in the student union. It was the same place I took ballroom dancing lessons with my friend Katie. It was next to the building where I was an RA. It was above the bowling alley where I had--yes--bowling class.

Torry has been dead for five years. I bought a t-shirt that night. It was red. It said, whitechocolatespaceegg on it. A few months later, when I am living with Torry in Minneapolis, my father will take a picture of me in my bedroom wearing that shirt. I'm standing there awkwardly, giving the tour of this apartment. I look awkward and uncomfortable. The t-shirt is too big for me. I didn't realize that until years later. I didn't have the kind of self-awareness then that I have now. But I suppose we all look back at our photographs and realize how much we didn't know at that particular moment in time.

When I stop and think about it, I have more memories than I can sort through all tied to that one square mile of Minneapolis. John Berryman jumped off a bridge near where I lived. You could see it from the dining room of our dorm. You could see it from the lounge where the hall council had a coffeeshop once a month and where, as part of my job, I hosted a reading for people who lived in the building.

I don't always know how to do this, how to live in a world that keeps filling up with ghosts.


Blame this mess

Due to all my madness, transition, and inability to maintain a clean and orderly house this year, I left off two very important titles from my No Tell Motel List of Best Books of 2010:

Suzanne Frischkorn's Girl on a Bridge
This book turns away from the idyllic landscape of Frischkorn's previous book and explores the past and our memory of it with grace and without sentimentality.

Montgomery Maxton's This Beautiful Bizarre
Maxton's collection is formally varied, urgent, and tense with both sexual danger and an emotional longing for what's been lost.

My love to both poets!


The Art is the Artist: a Consideration of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (contains spoilers!)

I just said it, but it bears repeating: this post contains spoilers, so please do not read ahead if you are sensitive to things like that.


What is the relationship between the art and the artist? That is the central question of Black Swan, a trippy psychological thriller that pits Nina (Natalie Portman) against the role of her career: Swan Lake's Swan Queen, split into two shades: the White Swan, the cursed princess who needs love to change her back into a young girl, and the Black Swan, her cruel twin sister and seductress of the White Swan's only hope for release.

The film pits the two swans against each other effectively. We come to understand, through the mentorship of the company's director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that the White Swan is naive, idealistic. In terms of the dance, she is flawless, technically perfect, trained. The Black Swan is her doppelganger, representing both dark desire and dark methods. The Black Swan must be visceral, is absorbed by the feeling of the moment rather than the requirements of the dance. She is unpredictable.

In a move reminiscent of Almodóvar, Aronofsky lifts the archetypes from Swan Lake and places them inside his narrative, adding an additional layer of tension and metaphor. Nina's (Mila Kunis) technically flawless but spiritless dancing is contrasted with that of Lily, the company's newcomer, whose impassioned but "incorrect" dancing seduces Thomas before Nina's eyes. But Nina, we come to learn, has a Black Swan within, a schism shaken loose more and more desperately by her own insecurity, by her paranoia's of Lily's friendship (or sabotage?), by her mother's suffocating control over her daily life off stage. Ultimately, Nina gives in and becomes both swans, flawlessly—she commits, in her mind, the act that finally releases the swan (murdering Lily during intermission) and then, just as quickly, discovers it was a fantasy and returns to the White Swan, now realizing she has lost everything she dreamed possible about herself.

That all of this occurs during the opening performance of the ballet is both tense and somewhat humorous, and the film plays with this tension, allowing us brief moments of nervous laughing even as we both fear and root for Nina. In that way, Aronofsky releases the Black Swan within each audience member and, by extension, forces us to empathize with Nina's destructive schism.

What's truly remarkable about this film is that every decision that went into its production was so carefully chosen so as to contribute to the thematic arc of the film. The costumes help define the light and the dark. The beginning of the film, Nina wears light pinks and whites for every scene, from her warm ups at home to her practice runs at Lincoln Center to a night out with Lily. But as the film progresses, we see her incorporate swatches of black, more and more fully, until her Black Swan fully takes her over. She takes, at Lily's insistence, a black camisole and wears it beneath her own shirt during their Ecstasy-fueled dance night, which finally and fully releases the potential of the black swan's power to Nina herself. Lily, on the other hand, is almost always dark--dark practice suits, dark hair, even somewhat ruddy skin, dark eyes. The contrast--and yet the resemblance--between Portman and Kunis is occasionally jarring, and purposefully so as Aronofsky sometimes shows Nina misrecognizing Lily's face as her own, especially in the scene where she stabs Lily (wearing her face) with a shard of broken mirror. Are you getting the symbols yet?

The sets are also doing a lot of work. Nina's apartment is small and claustrophobic, her bedroom decorated in whites and pinks with the accoutrements of childhood like stuffed animals, ceramic animals, and a ballerina music box. But right through the center of her white pillow is a curling stripe of black ink, swirling around her head. Thomas's apartment is a mid-century modern shrine that balances striking white elements with heavy black elements, signifying that he is the balance between the light and dark--and perhaps the route back and forth. In the nightclub where Nina gives in to Lily's visceral pleasures, the entire screen is black, lit with a pulsing red strobe light.

The camerawork is also brilliant. The film relies heavily on hand held camerawork, giving the film both a sense of cinema verité and also of the psychotic shifting happening within Nina. The filming of the dancing creates dizziness and instability in the viewer to match our heroine's descent and vertigo--we experience the whirl/stop balance of a pirouette that spins out of control as well as the imbalance inspired by being carried atop a dancer's shoulders and turned, turned, turned beneath the lights.

The sound effects are also amazing. Throughout the film, Aronofsky peppers the soundtrack with the sound of rustling feathers, evidence of Nina's growing transition and schism. The tapping of her toe shoes en pointe as she dances echo this sound, make her sound wholly avian. And the burly, sexual tones of the Tchaikovsky ballet are constantly contrasted with the light, delicate tones.

If Nina represents the dichotomy of the swans and Lily the threat of losing the part of her career to a more natural Black Swan, then Thomas is the prince of the ballet, there to save Nina from both the obscurity of the chorus and the ruin of her own meek identity. That Nina sees (or imagines) Thomas seduced by Lily only completes the enlivening of the ballet in her life. Nina's mother, on the other hand, seems to be the presence who curses her. A failed ballerina herself, she lives through Nina's career by extension, manipulating her daughter's emotions to retain control over her choices, behavior, and ultimately her career (she even wears all and only black!). In order to fully become the Black Swan, Nina must reject her and her control.

In the final performance, with Nina seemingly divided into the two aspects of her role, the light and the dark, traveling back and forth between the personae, she represents the artist's full integration into the art. She is no longer dancing the swans. She is the swans. Trapped in the circumstances of her own fear and insecurity, she dances the first act as the White Swan, full of self-pity and desire to be saved. In the dressing room, after she kills Lily/Nina and hides her body, she takes on the Black Swan, invites the darkness into her, and flawlessly dances the part to enormous audience acclaim. She kisses Thomas full on the mouth in front of her dancing colleagues and, just as quickly, tosses him away. Back in the dressing room to prepare for her final act, she discovers, when Lily knocks on her door, that the murder was a fantasy, and she realizes, too, that she is no longer capable of separating reality from her own perception of it. She has become a victim of the Black Swan herself--a victim of her ambition, her ego, her desire to conquer. Emotional, now, and slightly broken, resigned to her fate, she dances the White Swan's final scenes with no division between self and role. Nina knows what she must do in order to be released from her curse--just like the White Swan. When she dives from the cliff, the audience roars--and we discover she is bleeding from a wound in her abdomen. In order to succeed in the part, she had to become the part; she had to burn out in order to burn brightly. The White Swan and Black Swan cannot coexist.

If Inception was this year's exploration of the filmmaker's process to create his artistic vision, then Black Swan is the parable of the artist, the performer, the maker. This is not about process, but identity. The art is the artist--when completely integrated, the art/ist is transcendent, ecstatic. The integrated art/ist is both a symbol of herself and herself; she is human and heavenly. It is a strong and powerful message here.

Aside from all of this, the movie is buoyed by the beautiful dancing sequences executed by Portman and Kunis, who both received extensive training for the role.