The most useless thing about music criticism is that it asks whether an album is objectively “good” after, realistically, one to five listens. What’s useless about that is it bears no relation whatsoever to how we actually consume and, more importantly, enjoy, music. If you listen to an album once, decide that it’s “good,” and then feel no need to ever listen to it again, was it really any good?
Worthwhile music is a relationship, not a one-night stand. It finds its way into your car, onto your iPod, under your skin. You don’t so much choose to keep listening to a good album as give in. That process happens for different reasons, some more subjective than others, some deeper than others, and some as simple as “I can’t get that beat out of my head.” But that is where music lives: miles from our world of value assessment, hidden instead at random recesses in the ever churning clusterf*ck that we call the mind.
Quick: think of five albums you listen to that are more than two years old. How much does the objective quality of the music really have to do with why you still listen to it? Is any part of your relationship with that music rational?
An ever better example: scan Metacritic’s top 50 reviewed albums from last year, and count how many of those albums you still listen to. I counted five, and of those I really only listen to two with regularity. And I get paid to do this. I would objectively agree that most of that list is “good,” but Grizzly Bear’s Veckatemist is the only album that I can, with any certainty, say I’ll be listening to in 2012.
There are infinite ways in which music can be “listenable,” and none of them require explanation. It either grabs you or it doesn’t. You either feel compelled to keep hitting “play” or you don’t. Listenability may often be subjective, but it speaks for itself.
With that in mind, and after a year of hyper-analyzing the supposed best and biggest albums the week of their release, I went back and applied the listenability criterion. Obviously, I could not include every talked-about release, but I did go back and reevaluate almost 30 albums. Some opinions changed with times, some were just amplified. And with the acknowledgement that time is a factor, what follows is a snaphshot as of the end of 2010. We still don’t know what we’ll be listening to years from now—but we might have an idea what we won’t.
Completely unlistenable, despite what anyone says:
Sleigh Bells, Treats – There is not one viable musical quality to this sonic sh*tstain. Still haven’t met the person who plays this album for enjoyment.
Beach House – Teen Dream – How is it not obvious that this album will be completely forgotten within the space a calendar year?
Animal Collective, Merriwether Post Pavillion– I gave it another year. It’s still over-wrought crap.
Albums that did not suck but offered no sustained listening pleasure, and no reason to keep listening:
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening – No knock on The Mighty Murph, just an odd result, considering that low-maintenence listenability is LCD’s defining quality, and also considering that he piloted one of the more infectious rock records of the year.
Best Coast, Crazy For You - Cute. And Boring. If it were a person, he/she would last three dates, max.
Vampire Weekend, Contra – Are we sure VW isn't a giant practical joke?
Gorillaz, Plastic Beach – Trying so hard they forgot to make it fun.
Yeasayer, Odd Blood – Ditto.
Undeniably “good,” but not sticking. I have entirely stopped listening to these albums, and forced playback has not made a greater impression:
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs – Would rather listen to Funeral ten out of ten times.
The National, High Violet
Spoon, Transference – Not ready to write this one off yet. Previous Spoon albums have crept up on me after over a year.
Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record - The single “Texico B*tches,” excluded.
The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards – Once the curiosity wears off, the first album is clearly better. Their live set list openly acknowledged that fact.
Slipped off the playlist for various reasons, but review playback is unexpectedly rewarding. A glimmer of long-term potential, with a big “TBD” attached.
MGMT, Congratulations – Biggest surprise comeback. Disliked it outright in the Spring, but it may prove to be the 2010 sleeper. Those clowns may have done some real songwriting.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Self Titled – Radio overplay can kill anything, but it may prove to be the “Ha—remember 2010?” album, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Broken Bells, Self Titled
Drake, Thank Me Later
The Roots, How I Got Over – The only way The Roots could really make waves is to put out a bad album, so sometimes you have to step back to achieve the proper amount of awe. They decide to make a funk/soul record, and it’s as good as any funk/soul record you’ve ever heard. It might be another decade before we wake up and realize that The Roots are the black Rolling Stones.
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot…
Gogol Bordello, Trans-Continental Hustle – Some awesome singles that will be long-term live staples, not sure about the rest.
The albums that continue to get play, but the long-term verdict is still out.
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast – A great deal will depend on album number two, but these guys have something.
Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone – Some voices just have a way into your head. I’ve been singing “Don’t Knock” for two straight months. Initially, Jeff Tweedy production seemed like a gimmick, but that resonant Tweedy feel is becoming more apparent with time.
Free Energy, Stuck on Nothing – The Murph Man’s slick pop sensibility is all over the place, but these boys also need a good follow-up.
White Stripes, Under The Great White Northern Lights– May have gotten less attention because of the DVD it’s companion to, but it’s the live Stripes collection we’ve always wanted. Found myself listening to it more than the studio albums in 2010.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Mean Old Man – There’s a weariness in old Jerry Lee’s voice that cannot be faked, reminiscent of those last Johnny Cash recordings, and they will be equally poignant if the mean old bastard checks out soon.
Albums that I will still be rocking in 2012:
Girl Talk, All Day – What can you say? Listenability is the entire premise. The only way we won’t listen to this in two years is if he drops another one that’s even better.
Kanye, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – The complete absorption of hip hop into the pop music dialect and into mainstream culture in general has made it really, really difficult to make an original and legitimately compelling hip-hop album—not unlike what rock bands faced in the 70’s. I’ve spent the last half-decade in glazed semi-interest in the entire form, but I may be wrapping my head around the dimensions Kanye’s psyche for the next six months. My initial thought is it could light a fire under the rest of the hip hop world’s tired, overfed butt, but perhaps better would be the rise of new generation with its eyes bent squarely on the 12-foot rim Kanye just dared everyone else to dunk on. Who else could have made this album?
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor – It’s probably a little too punk to ever be fully worshipped outside of the rockist society (my application is being processed), but Titus Andronicus are proof that as long as the globe spins, it will give birth to new rock voices, those who by sheer possession of the virus will forge something original and indelible out of the old rubble, and hit that same, awesome, cathartic nerve. The Monitor has an eccentric array of fathers, but in a few years, if not sooner, Patrick Stickles will be recognized as a one-of-a-kind motherf*cker.