Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guest post: Personal Top 5 - Dylan Wilbanks

We're an egalitarian bunch here at Higher Ed Critics. Even though our collective consists of 10 this year (expanded from the original seven), we always welcome guest posts. Here's one from fellow higher ed marketing guy/music lover Dylan Wilbanks (@dylanw), who shares his favorite albums, songs and disappointments of the year.

Dylan Wilbanks' Top 5 of 2010

When I was writing this, I found I was continually referring to a song or album’s “emotional core.” And this was a year of very, very strong emotions all over the place, from the rage of the Tea Party to the pained disappointment of the political left to the continued struggle of the unemployed to the awkward transparency of celebrities on Twitter. In that environment it feels like artistry requires ripping your heart out of your chest while committing emotional hari-kari -- and now we’re all covered in blood and guts as a result.

Strangely, it took me a while to warm to this year’s crop of albums. They all seemed short of perfect and somehow unable to capture this morass of feelings we’re all having. In the end I was split between two albums for best of, and then Kanye West came along to make the decision for me. Songs, well, there was clearly a #1 for me the moment I heard it, one we’ll look back on in curiosity and embarrassment down the road.

2010 wasn’t a world-changing year in music but a transitional year to something bigger and better. As auto-tuning plays itself out and hip-hop turns into dance music, and as the musical genres continue to fragment like broken glass, the signs all point to something emerging to take rock and pop to a whole new level. What we’re transitioning to, though, I haven’t the foggiest. I just hope it doesn’t feature any more auto-tune.


1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West is music’s Manny Ramirez. Ramirez was a notorious distraction in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, misplaying fly balls, skipping out on games, just being genuinely weird. And yet he was the most productive hitter on the Red Sox’ 2004 and 2007 world champion teams. The craziness was chalked up to “Manny being Manny.”

And here’s Kanye, in the midst of a two-year period where he stepped on Taylor Swift’s big moment, a very awkward conversation with Matt Lauer where Lauer continually asked Kanye how he feels about hurting the president’s feelings (a president who was compared to Hitler and burned in effigy thousands of times in his eight years in office), and a Twitter account that lets a million people enjoy his ramblings like a bunch of rubberneckers looking at a fender bender. Kanye has been, if not really self-destructive, a cautionary tale for having a personal filter and knowing when to shut up.

And what does he turn around and do? Make an album that so wows you with its audacity, with its emotional impact, with its transparency that you just have to sit there and marvel at what is in front of you, like Manny Ramirez delivering a homer over the Monster to win the game. It’s Kanye being Kanye, the most honest man in music.

2. The National - High Violet

Even though it’s #2, I still think this album is missing something. They are even better than what they sound like on High Violet, but they still haven’t found it. No matter: They are the best white guy band in America right now. They’re certainly better than Vampire Weekend, a band that looks like preppie rapists and sounds like they’re strip-mining Graceland. The National has a better record in them, but for right now this one easily beats Contra.

3. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

On Funeral, Win Butler kept the balance right between the big bombast of “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” and the intimate but something brewing underneath sounds of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” and “Haiti.” Then he lost that on Neon Bible, laying it on thick like Christopher Hitchens were co-writing the songs. On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire return to that feeling, somewhat. Thematically it’s less hopeful and more weary than Funeral, but the bombast is dialed way down from Neon Bible, and the underlying message is less about Suburbs Are Evil and more about We Are Children Of The Suburbs And This Is Our Story. “We Used To Wait” is the prime example of this -- the sense of loss from Funeral, but it never goes over the top, only builds tension until it explodes, and then is as quiet as the digital extinction they sing about.

4. Sufjan Stevens - The Age Of Adz

Talk about an album that divides people. After we saw Sufjan here in Seattle, my wife said, “It was OK... but I really liked the acoustic stuff more.” Given that 80% of the concert was songs from Adz (including a full 25 minute performance of “Impossible Soul” that crescendoed with Sufjan in Kanye slat shades and the backup singers turning into fly girls), she didn’t what get she paid for.

But I was OK with it. It’s clear that Sufjan is trying to shuck off the “acoustic chamber pop” label. He’s trying to become David Byrne and getting there via Gary Numan and Captain Beefheart. And yet, he’s the same old Sufjan, turning words and sounds around each other without losing the emotional core that’s the base of all his music. And while you want to think “Impossible Soul” is the most self-indulgent sitcom-length song since Peter Gabriel put on that flower suit to sing “Supper’s Ready,” by the time the fly girls appear you understand what he’s been trying to do. He’s trying to work out his relationships with God, people, lovers, his fans, and he’s trying to do it the only way he knows how. And in his hands, it’s at times self-indulgent, but all the time it’s interesting and emotionally cathartic.

5. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Noise pop has made a comeback the last few years, with Animal Collective leading the way and Sleigh Bells and Deerhunter coming behind. On Halcyon Digest, though, Deerhunter is starting to become more accessible than Animal Collective, and that can only bode well for them. “Helicopter” is as much a pop single as “My Girls” was last year, but Deerhunter sounds far more capable of repeating the experiment than Animal Collective. They wear their My Bloody Valentine influence like a merit badge, but they’re far more subtle, wanting to sneak in to your parlor with a few hundred amps rather than blast your front door down with a cacophony of buzz.

Also receiving votes: Teen Dream, Beach House; Write About Love, Belle and Sebastian; Crazy For You, Best Coast; Brothers, Black Keys; Interpreting The Masters, Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall And John Oates, The Bird And The Bee; Swim, Caribou; Tron, Daft Punk; This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem; Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom; How I Got Over, The Roots


1. “Bed Intruder Song,” Antoine Dodson and The Gregory Brothers

This song was 2010. A meme born from real anger and frustration run through Auto-Tune and turned into a best selling download. Covers. Mashups. How dare we see African-Americans this way, we guiltily think to ourselves. Are we laughing at him, or with him? And yet, we keep listening, because we understand the powerlessness, the need for retribution. And it’s so damn catchy.

2. “Tightrope,” Janelle Monae

2010 may be remembered as the year we first found out about Janelle Monae. I hope 2010 is; she’s incredibly talented.

3. “Runaway,” Kanye West

It’s just Kanye being Kanye.

4. “I Can Change,” LCD Soundsystem

Between looking like Brian Ferry on the cover of his latest album and this song’s opening beep-boops of 1980-era synth pop, you have to ask if James Murphy is heading down a get-off-my-lawn nostalgia for youth. And yet, this song sounds so much fresher than the source material.

5. “F**k You,” Cee-Lo Green

The song was so five minutes ago four minutes after it first hit YouTube, but that first four minutes were awesome, the most salty F-off pop song in forever delivered with incredible sweetness.

Honorable Mention: “Fly Scientist,” Chi Duly (Coldplay/Drake), “Not In Love,” Crystal Castles/Robert Smith, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” The National, “Rill Rill,” Sleigh Bells, “The Wild Hunt,” The Tallest Man On Earth

Biggest disappointments:

MGMT - Congratulations

What went wrong, guys? Did you believe your own press too much?

Weezer - Hurley/Death To False Metal

When are we all going to admit that Weezer has degenerated into a Weezer cover band?


  1. Nice feature, Dylan. No arguments with your top 5 at all. All very deserving choices and albums I spent a lot of time with this year. Agreed also on MGMT and Weezer. I just play the Blue Album and remember the good ol' days.

  2. Dylan: Your depiction of Kanye West as the Manny Ramirez of music is spot on. Thanks for joining our merry mob of music critic wannabes. I'm just sorry I didn't invite you to participate earlier.

    Re: Weezer. I didn't even bother to sample their 2010 offering so I really can't comment.

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