The Best and Worst Music of 2010

We decided to take a slightly less conventional take during our annual recap. Instead of the best albums, singles and onstage moments, wouldn't you rather read about concerts just for dogs, see the most awful album cover to grace the shelves of Wal-Mart, and hear all about this new hip genre called "witch house?" We sure hope so. We'll be featuring some of our favorite tracks of 2010, along with an article about some of our favorite in-house MadeLoud artists, before the end of the year. For now, please enjoy this collaborative effort wherein we look at some of the more bright and cringe-tastic musical moments of 2010.

Ballsiest Performer

Minnesota glam rock weirdo Mark Mallman doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks to prove his chops, but it’s awfully entertaining when he does. In one of the more physically extreme musical acts of 2010, Mallman held the stage for an uninterrupted 78-hour set at Saint Paul’s Turf Club. For more than three sleepless days, Mallman and a rotating cast of musicians played a single, hard-rocking song, mellowing out only during his ambient overnight solo sets. If that wasn’t enough, Mallman also undertook one of the year’s most financially risky projects: His Ruby Isle side project released a completely unauthorized, song-for-song cover of Appetite for Destruction. Endangering one’s health for the sake of art is ballsy. Essentially daring Axl Rose to take you to court is the ballsiest.

Reunion Tour Best Suited to the County Fair Circuit

The long-awaited return of Pavement got a surprising amount of positive press, but this time around there was little to distinguish the definitive ‘90s indie rockers from any other bunch of cash-strapped musicians paying the bills by rehashing a predictable package of greatest hits and crowd-pleasers. At least it gave Billy Corgan a chance to fire off some “sell-out” zingers he’d probably been patiently honing ever since “Range Life.”

Oddest Lou Reed Collaboration

Lou Reed has pretty much earned the right to work with whomever he wants on whatever he wants. 2010 found him making connections both sublime (performing guest vocals on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach) and surreal (resolving a pseudo-feud with Susan Boyle by directing the music video for her “Perfect Day” cover). The hands-down winner for most peculiar partnership, though, had to be Reed and wife Laurie Anderson performing a concert for dogs in Sydney, Australia. Advertised as a 20-minute set of high-frequency “music” audible only to canines, the actual show consisted largely of Anderson squawking and squealing on various instruments while Lou hung out near the stage. If you’re an Australian dog in the market for avant-garde entertainment, you could probably do worse.

Best Use of a Late Night Talk Show Booking

The musical guests on The Late Show with David Letterman are often not much more than a network-mandated afterthought, which makes it all the more impressive when a little-known artist steps up to the mic and, to borrow Dave’s parlance, “blows the roof off the dump.” Janelle Monae did exactly that in May, mesmerizing all in attendance with a hot-stepping, full-throated, room-rocking rendition of “Tightrope” that announced her to the world as the second coming of James Brown. Even the normally reticent Letterman was visibly stirred by a performance that made Monae an internet darling literally overnight.

- Ira Brooker

Worst Album Cover

The art for Jeff Beck's latest, Emotion and Commotion, is so laughably over-the-top that you might be tempted to think he's joking. If, say, Stephen Colbert were to release a record featuring an eagle clutching an electric guitar, you'd know it was a comedy album. But Jeff Beck isn't kidding. The proof of this lies in the earnestly bad music beneath the horrid cover. The cloying, melodramatic orchestral guitar rock – which features younger guest vocalists like Joss StoneImelda May) – is blatantly tooled to lure in Gen's X & Y, along with Jeff Beck's Boomer cohorts. The offending cherry on top? Beck stole two cover song choices – "Lilac Wine" and "Corpus Cristi Carol" – from Jeff Buckley's magnificent Grace album. Nina Simone, Benjamin Britten, and Buckley just rolled over in their graves.

Nicest Surprise

Although Ariel Pink's early string of bedroom four-track recordings have their fans, these lo-fi LPs of hissy acid-pop had little chance of winning an audience beyond the hardcore devotees of this supposedly "authentic" aesthetic. On Before Today, Pink's debut for 4AD, he employs his tight backing band, Haunted Graffiti, to great effect. Their sound is polished, but far from mainstream, as they bang out weirdly catchy tunes that blend David Bowie-esque glam rock with Flaming Lips-like psychedelic alt-pop, along with splashes of disco, new romanticism, and whatever else springs from the fertile and off-kilter mind of Ariel Pink. Somehow, this all conspires to yield a cohesive and compelling album that's among the very best of 2010.

Best Unpopular Concert

The November night was frozen and fogged over, which made Portland's log cabin-themed Doug Fir Lounge seem like the genuine article, tucked away in a wintry woods. For the maybe two-dozen of us who caught Free Energy that evening, it felt like a private party we'd wandered into. According to the drummer's girlfriend (who also worked the merch booth), the young Philadelphia quintet of rockin' power poppers were fresh off a week-long break, which they'd spent hanging out with Canadian tour mates Hollerado, soaking in a friend's hot tub and drinking local microbrews. Despite the paltry attendance, the well-rested Free Energy repeatedly proclaimed how happy they were to be back on stage. Their joy was infectious, as the audience joined the guys' boisterous entourage in dancing and singing along to the big, catchy choruses: "Bang, pop, pop / Oh-way-oh." A packed house would have only cheapened the lovefest that night.

Best Debut Album

With a kick-ass band name like Betty & the Werewolves, the music had better be good. The London mostly-female quartet live up to their sobriquet on Tea Time Favourites, a punky and poppy premier record of DIY indie rock that recalls circa-1980 bands X-Ray Spex and The Raincoats, along with Smiths-y jangle-pop and the sonically scruffy C86 movement. With just enough grit to avoid being twee, Betty & the Werewolves are a fun new band to watch.

- Michael Keefe

Worst Song You Haven’t Heard

Like the gist of the Human Centipede or an unlikely expression for exploitative sex found on Urban Dictionary, the horror of Rene La Taupe’s "Mignon Mignon" requires the horror to be spread from host to host, so that we can somehow alleviate this suffering en masse. “Oh, it’s just a stupid European mole singing and farting,” you may argue upon watching the animated clip for this huge worldwide hit. Sure, this mole (groundhog!) might seem innocuous and foreign enough, but the farting and squeaky voice is sure to hit our shores eventually, as something this stupid is sure to find an audience in the States. As H.L. Mencken once cynically declared, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Can we prove the old cynical newsman wrong for once, or are we destined to have another Crazy Frog on our hands before the year is through?

Best Accidental Hit

The Gregory Brothers are an actual band, but they’re much better known as the instigators of the “Auto-Tune the News” novelty project that combines pithy news commentary with self-made songs featuring loads of auto-tune. The shtick seemed to have run its course before they group stumbled upon the story of the Dodson family, the victims of a break-in and attempted rape in Alabama. Family member Antoine Dodson’s tirade against the criminal (still at large) proved perfect fodder for the Brothers’ combination of serious-minded fun, and while the perpetrator remains at large, the Dodson family received funds and notoriety from what became known as The Bed Intruder Song. Thumbs up for justice.

Biggest Hit of Which We’re All Unaware

Just today I received an email announcing that Aaron Lewis of Staind hit the #1 spot on charts with his song “Country Boy.” This is notable for several reasons – one, who on earth even realized the rote nu-metal of Staind hadn’t ceased to exist in 2001? And two, Lewis’ transition from neck-tatted, deeply-feeling “rocker” to potential Republican congressman is so blatant that even Kid Rock might turn a shade crimson from under his pimp hat and goofy sunglasses. Unapologetically hankering to become a hero to the red states, Lewis forgot to write a song worth a damn, and instead used what stands in as a melody to deliver platitudes about dirt roads, and guns, and drinking, and America, and being proud to be an American, and all that. Suddenly, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” seems almost subtle by comparison.

- Adam Schragin

Best Non-Genre

Every year some silly journalist links three or four projects together (no matter spatial distance) and calls it a scene. Last year it was chillwave, this year we had witch house. But lucky for us, witch house brought artists with ten times the artistic credibility most involved in chillwave had. Combining ear-blasting, headrush-haze, icy synth, and the occasional choir, 2010 was a love letter to the apocalyptic visions of Reznor, Liquid Liquid, and other electro-industrial professionals. Expect the term to last longer than just the year.

Best Use of Controversy

As the dust has settled, it’s becoming increasingly clear that some of the best songs on the already-classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came from that faithful night at the VMAs. “Runaway,” “Monster,” even the glazed-eye “Gorgeous” all have an element of public regret in them, and those downer attributes help turn the record into such a holistic effort. If such a slight fiasco resulted in this amount of creative glory, next time Mr. West oughta interrupt the presidential inauguration.

Best Band Meltdown

Band meltdowns range from depressing to kinda funny - and usually when a brotherly brawl and slayer covers are involved it usually hedges more on the entertaining side. So when Canadian art-rockers Women turned a normal show into a pissed-off blow up, including a four song set, passive aggressive quips, and destruction of band equipment, you can’t help but have a little chuckle. They were all in Halloween costumes, for extra hilarity.

Most Monomaniacal Rapper

Surprisingly, even Kanye West has to bow to Miami’s Rick Ross for this year’s crown of megalomaniac ridiculousness. Ross, known vividly as the rapper who fronted a coke-king fantasy despite increasingly obvious evidence that he served as a prison guard, only amped up the ferociousness on Teflon Don. With not a shred of self-consciousness and plenty of hubris, he took us through a cinematic arc of pure Mafioso excess. Most of these stories aren’t true, sure, but the epic boom of these songs aren’t about accuracy, they’re about the attack.

- Luke Winkie


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