Before I unleash my large essay, already at around 5,000 words with no end in sight, and mostly, unsurprisingly, fairly negative, I do feel it worthwhile, primarily in the interest of giving credit where it is due, but also because I do not want to become a parody of myself, to list some truly positive experiences I have had. The following lists are short not to implicate a lack of excellence, but to focus your attention on it.
I never make it out as often as I should. Though, ultimately, I am a believer in the superiority of recorded music, of what can happen when an artist has the opportunity to do their best work without the pressure of performing and all that goes along with it (fighting off the flu, fighting off indifference, fighting off equipment failure, and then, after traveling, doing it all again another night - not to say that pushy A&R reps and label "bean-counters" don't exert their own pressure on artists), there can be something truly galvanizing about a good night out that sitting at home and listening to a record can never match. In fact, even if I am a believer in recorded music as usually the best document of what an artist is capable of, it is more important for me, in principle, to advocate for and support the simple act of going out, of being in public. While listening to a great record at home is, I think, a more important thing than just lying around watching TV, the lack of your or my presence (at the club, at the concert, in the community) is equally felt regardless.
Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio at Sangha, Takoma Park, Maryland (somewhere around late 2002 - early 2003): Held in a patchouli-scented Third World fair-trade trinket shop (sadly missed) in a hippie enclave right outside of DC, this concert was both typical and exceptional. The small audience, entirely male, mostly 40-plus (and probably mostly single), constituted the last true die-hard fans of a music that is a continual blind spot for most critics and music lovers. At least everyone there was there for the music, but it seemed, initially, a bit of a waste, as the total number of audience members was surely less than the total number of years the musicians (El'Zabar, Ari Brown and Ernest Dawkins) have played their respective instruments. But when the concert began, none of that mattered.
While experienced percussionist El'Zabar provided busy, yet supportive polyrhythms, stretching from repetitive world-music-influenced patterns out into jagged free-improv territory, sometimes via his drum set but mostly from an assortment of hand drums, Brown and Dawkins took turns soloing, mostly on their tenor saxophones, though sometimes Brown would sit at the piano to play large, suggestive chords to guide his compatriots. Besides the lyricism of the post-Coltrane (John AND Alice) Eastern-influenced modalism of the playing that night, what really stuck out was the experience of the players, the way they never tried to push the length of their solos past the ideas that were, at that moment, available to them. This does not speak of an unwillingness to experiment, but rather the forethought of all involved. Whenever they felt the well to be running dry, they would simply stop attempting to procure water.
I don't put much stock in social applications of Darwin's theories, but, certainly, anyone who has been able to survive for decades in this unpopular corner of the music world has certainly proved their fitness. In fact, really, at the risk of sounding conservative, if you are going to spend your money on a live concert for its own sake, why not see a group that can, you know, actually play their instruments?
Here is the Ensemble in a different configuration.
The Streets and Dizzee Rascal at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC (July, 2004):
Well, this really felt like a victory and vindication, a packed club, amazing, spirited performances. Not much to say about this. At the time, it felt liberating to be singing along with a hundreds, if not a thousand people, to "Weak Become Heros", but, in hindsight, it was a bit of a perspectival trick, as there were probably more people at that show than any actual dance music events that year. Where did they all come from, and what were they all singing about?
Surely because of my massive alcohol intake, this is the only time I have ever truly fawned over an artist. If Mr. Skinner remembers this show at all, he surely remembers me. Sorry, man.
Kevin Hedge (Blaze) at DC Sanctuary, Washington, DC (May, 2006):
Surely this is what all the "heads" rattle on about, only on a much smaller scale. Twenty people, all dancing, cheap drinks, a joint or two, a real sound system and a truly talented DJ who, due to the size and fervor of the crowd, dispensed with all of the big-room bullshit he would play only a night or two later at Cielo in New York, for deep (as in trance-inducing, as in journey-enabling, as in mind-expanding, not contracting), good stuff.
The club itself, sadly closed only a short time after this gig, was in a townhouse and former barbershop on "the bad side of town", which certainly provided the necessary de/re-contextualization. This street has subsequently been "revitalized" with theme bars for hipsters and their requisite "dance" nights, also know as "progress". Your club: no talcum powder, no credibility.
Fever Ray at Webster Hall, New York City (September 2009):
I have already written a little about this, and plan on writing more. Suffice it to say, for the purpose of the diatribe to follow on this page in a month or so, the fact that I had such a great time at this even proves, to me at least, that it is not entirely my fault that I am so frustrated, so cynical, so disillusioned. Fine, if I were truly incapable of having a good time, incapable of feeling any pleasure at all, no amount of prolepsis could defeat the argument that could be levelled against me, that all of my judgments and pronouncements about music were invalid because I just can't feel it anymore. I can folks.
Albums I love from this decade:
Burial - Untrue
The first album obviously deserves it's place on any chart longer than this one, but the second album has the "choons". Moving even further from dubstep's compact palate at the time, Burial's take on 2-step and its "feminine pressure" made even more explicit the connection to the lamented lost era of UK rave and innovation.
While it has been mentioned that Burial was too young to have actually attended the big raves that his music seems nostalgic for, its really because of this, because the rave dream was always as such, that may give the music it's true poignancy.
Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator)
If I were an alt-country artist I think I would hate this record. So many people, for so many years, have been relying merely on the gesture of picking up an acoustic guitar and singing close harmonies for the automatic credibility gained. This simple act not only connects one within a resilient system of roots, but also rejects its inverse: rootless cosmopolitanism. And indeed, most of the bearded and earnest have been leaning on this instant credibility so hard that they have actually forgotten to, you know, write good songs and convey emotion.
I can't exactly tell you why I think this record is so special, it's really only that, instead of relying on what would be a negative gesture in other hands, Gillian Welch and her collaborator took their limited palate and did with it all that could be done, and all that couldn't be done in other genres.
David S. Ware - Live In The World
An essential document of the 90s/00s "New Thing". I can't write about music, but I REALLY can't write about jazz.
Luomo - Vocalcity
I really need to start smoking weed again.
The Streets - Original Pirate Material
Every dance music fan must have some point that they felt the "we" dissolve into boring partisanship. Thank you Mike for holding it together just a little bit longer.
Kanye West - The College Dropout
I could never quite bring myself to follow this man's career. It is entirely possible that, having only given cursory listens to his later albums, that he duplicated the silliness of "Slow Jamz" or "We Don't Care". Because that is the Kanye I like. I never dreamed that the overdramatic "Jesus Walks" would become a future template, nor that the triumphalism of "Through The Wire", somewhat justified based on the actual topic of the song, would be repeated as nasuem with diminishing returns and with no reason to be sympathetic. "Through The Wire" see Kanye explicitly mentioning his swollen head, but many songs subsequent to it merely reflected it. I still don't know how I feel about "808..."...
Dizzee Rascal - Boy In Da Corner
Plenty has been written about this, and I can't do any better. I just want to say that, at a time, when most rappers thought their art involved concealing their sweat, Dizzee's style, brash and vital, showing obvious exertion (though not difficulty) felt amazingly fresh.
Roy Campbell - Ethnic Stew and Brew
Great playing, with all of the "world" influences never quite feeling as deracinated as they could have. Blues as a form is Western, blues as a spirit is not. "Amadou Diallo", as protest song AND as music, deserves your special attention.
A few singles:
Clipse - Grindin'
Still causes me to clap and gesticulate like I was listening to an old Sam and Dave record. An obvious choice for obvious reasons.
Tweet - Oops (Oh My)
"Work It" now sounds gimmicky to me, an inadvertent precursor to some of the over-compressed, every-frequency-filled records that followed in its wake, if only because it is such a busy record. The languid "Oops"' feels even more gracious in its spaciousness now than it did then.
Nelly Furtado - Promiscuous
Timbaland is smart insofar as he realized that the big synths of 80s pop music were there to support even bigger choruses.
Luomo - Really Don't Mind
Disappointing in that the radio mix, not either of the version on the 12" of, you know, a DANCE record, was the best mix, this ambivalent ode to pleasure over happiness (a descendent of Diana Ross's "Upside Down") may have described Luomo's relationship with dance music more than the singer's relationship with her lover.
MGMT - Time To Pretend
It's all bullshit, but at least they admit it. Thank you. Thank you very much. May I have your expensive degree if you are not going to use it?
702 - Star
Probably underrated because it is a bubblegum record (this certainly chews better than most). But really, "Slave 4 U" is good despite Britney, not because of her. Was that whole popism thing about good records or just good stories?
LCD Soundsystem - Losing My Edge
Admit it, it was all downhill from here.
The Rapture - Out Of The Races And On To The Tracks
Admit it, it was all downhill from here.
Justin Timberlake - "Like I Love You" and "Cry Me A River"
I feel sorry for the critics (none of whom would be caught dead at a Paul Van Dyk gig) who spent a lot of time thinking about the bland, frictionless neo-Trance of FutureSex. JT had two briliant singles, "Like I Love You", and "Cry Me A River". Like a lot of very talented people in pop, it seems he didn't realize how damn good they were and didn't set his expectations accordingly. A shame.