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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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My 2010 Music Picks

Now that the arbitrarily defined calendar year is actually ending, I thought I’d dilute the impact of best-of lists by adding mine.

My Favorite Albums Released in 2010

  • Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid: She’s got a great voice, terrific style, and a fascinating vision. It’s easily the best album released this year and one of the best of the past decade. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Say You’ll Go”
  • Arcade Fire — The Suburbs: Yes, there’s some whining about the isolation of suburban life, but that’s just on the surface of this album. I love the way the lyrics make me think about growing up, the sound they’ve achieved, and that it’s as great as critics and fans hoped it would be. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Month of May”
  • of Montreal — False Priest: I still think Skeletal Lamping is thus far the oM masterpiece, but that’s like saying moist chocolate cake is superior to tiramisu. As with dessert, either will make me very happy. At the risk of overloading you with comparisons, I also think this is their most accessible album, but it’s still damn weird and damn brilliant. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Godly Intersex”
  • Stars — The Five Ghosts: It’s like a PR party hosted by ghosts. The tone is light at first, but as the festivities proceed, they experience pain that can’t be touched. Although the songs are some of the band’s most hook-driven, concise songwriting, it’s still a really lovely album. If You Only Listen to One Track: “He Dreams He’s Awake”
  • Caribou — Swim: Intricately woven electronic music that’s gorgeous and fun and modern and full of feeling. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Jamelia”
  • Robyn — Body Talk: This is smart dance music as fun as Madonna’s Confessions, but Robyn explores the yearning and pain of the club scene like I haven’t heard since Pet Shop Boys’ Nightlife. She’s got a great voice to communicate her blend of toughness and vulnerability. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Indestructible”
  • Duran Duran — All You Need Is Now: A lot of DD fans want them to sound like they did in the early 80s, and this album should make them happy. More important, it’s simply a terrific album with nine terrific tracks that capture the band’s range, from fun dance songs to strangely beautiful numbers. I wish the album were a little longer and that they’d re-record “Safe” without the inane guest performance, but otherwise, it’s a winner. If You Only Listen to One Track: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”
  • Peter Gabriel — Scratch My Back: Gabriel interprets songs he admires according to his own dark musical vision. It’s gorgeous. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Listening Wind”
  • Massive Attack — Heligoland: As lovely and warm as Mezzanine while as challenging as 100th Window. Comforting one moment, disturbing the next, and resonant, brilliant throughout. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Girl I Love You”
  • Groove Armada — Black Light: Seems like everybody’s trying to do the early 80s sound these days and almost everybody sucks at it. Groove Armada nails it while sounding completely right-now. Maybe in thirty years Black Light will sound timeless. Or not. Who cares? It sounds good. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Not Forgotten”

The Artists I Listened to Most in 2010 (According to my Last.fm Account)

1 Pet Shop Boys
2 Stars
3 The Flaming Lips
4 Janelle Monáe
5 New Order
6 Arcade Fire
7 of Montreal
8 Air
9 Duran Duran
10 Peter Gabriel
11 Basement Jaxx
12 Goldfrapp
13 Massive Attack
14 Sade
15 Caribou
16 Animal Collective
17 Hot Chip
18 Radiohead
19 Clark
20 Ella Fitzgerald
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Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man Returning to His Roots

For my birthday, Jane sent me R.E.M.’s latest album, Accelerate. She knows I’ve been listening to them since 1986. Except for one album in the early 00’s, I tend to buy them on the day of release or very soon after. The press about Accelerate sort of pissed me off, so I was in no rush. Critics praised the album, saying the band had returned to their guitar-driven roots. I hate when critics say such things, as if a band is always better when they sound like they did in the beginning. For one thing, Accelerate doesn’t sound like jangly, early-80s R.E.M.; it’s more like the band’s howling, mid-90s sound. Rather than returning to their roots, it sounds as if they revised an earlier style by merging it with the sound of their last album.

Which brings me to another point about what those critics seem to be missing: the last album was very much guitar-driven, although it was quieter than Accelerate. I’m guessing that critics get off on Accelerate‘s loud, garage-band energy. Their last few albums were more quiet and reflective, which are qualities allowed only by a few rock or country dinosaurs. From anyone else, quiet-and-reflective points to self-indulgence and pretention, which are located about halfway down the slippery slope to unmanliness. (Except for rare exceptions–e.g., glam, Prince–this seems to be considered a bad thing.)

What rock critics–at least many who write for the corporate rock publications–seem to yearn for most is the sound of a smart band playing loud music; it’s like watching a well-designed car chase sequence that is actually integral to the plot of a movie. But they can’t just say they like Accelerate for that reason, which really should be enough. They have to make grand claims that R.E.M. have saved themselves from Adult Contemporary irrelevance. (Oh, yes, in the past few years, I haven’t known whether I was listening to R.E.M. or Celine Dion. Thank you, Oh Divine rock critics, for saving ME as well.)

There seems an extreme distrust of experimentation, unless, of course, the results work brilliantly according to a particular listener’s standards. I’m betting that the album of remixes from earlier this decade must have pissed off a lot of R.E.M. purists. I’m all for change, because for all the times it’s a move of desperation, more often it pays off. For example, I’m fascinated by two apology-centered songs, the jangly “So. Central Rain” from 1984 and 1998’s “The Apologist” with its rich mix of piano, organ, guitar, and electronic percussion. In both, singer/lyricist Michael Stipe sings “I’m sorry” repeatedly. In the former, he is sorry for things beyond his control, whereas in the latter he seems to admit responsibility. They both have the R.E.M. sound, but are quite distinct. Maybe because the band members are more mature. Or maybe because over 14 years’ time, things are bound to change, at least a little, if you let them.

Staying the same for years guarantees irrelevance, too. If R.E.M. and other artists who simply won’t go away did not experiment, then purists could not experience the thrill of the so-called homecoming, which is really what satisfies. “Oh, the band sounds like I remember them back when I was in high school. How comforting.” Which is sadly un-cool of them.

Artists are not responsible for comforting the audience. They should explore new possibilities and be willing to make the audience uncomfortable. That’s actually why I started listening to R.E.M. They sounded different, and the lyrics were odd. Much of my Angry Young Man writing was an attempt to find my inner Michael Stipe. I made A’s in English; I knew the rules. But I wanted to say things that weren’t designed to win permission. Writing songs that was freeing but frustrating; I liked creating them, but not having the skills to write music for them made me feel as if I were singing to myself, which I guess I was. I realized I wanted an audience, even though the threat of being found out as someone with unrevised thoughts to share is enough to shut some writers down completely.

I still struggle with the tension between what Linda Flower calls writer-based and reader-based writing. Every writer struggles with this. A thought doesn’t necessarily have form that will make sense to others, or that will be easy to translate into language. Writing is the process of helping others understand those thoughts. Even if I wrote lyrics for a band whose reputation was largely grounded in cryptic lyrics, I would take some shit when audience members didn’t get my point. The trick seems to be to get them to care enough that they might be missing something interesting, so they will ask for clarification, or at least complain in a public forum.

Insert Keyboard Solo Here

It must take some guts to establish oneself as a songwriter. Even songs that are considered artistic achievements are often difficult to take seriously, especially backup lyrics. The “woo-woos” and “bay-bees” sound just right, conveying feeling in quasi-words transported by sound. You’ve got to be bold to write them down then sing them while strumming your acoustic guitar and insisting, “Oh yeah, this will totally work.”

A great song breaks new ground while drawing on listeners’ expectations of what a great song is. If it were completely new, it wouldn’t reach many people. That’s not to say that great songs must have mainstream appeal. But a great song should communicate, otherwise it’s a secret code designed to obfuscate meaning–a great mystery.

This is probably true for any kind of writing. It’s hard to strike a balance between connecting with an audience and retaining your uniqueness. Sometimes I write lines and my internal editor calls me out. “That’s just gratuitous,” xe says (my internal editor is trans). “That line fits, but just barely. You wrote it to show off, didn’t you? You think people are going to laugh with you. Trust me, you’ll get attention, but not the kind you’re after.”

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