Rival Dealer // The 2010s Part I

As the next generation of critics solidifies its grip on pop culture, I’m given to rumination on the last decade of music from a healthier distance, both of age and engagement. With the sale of Pitchfork to Condé Nast in October 2015, the role I’d played for nearly ten years — the pantomime Martin Luther of the music press — was written out of the script. Sans an “independent” and successful publication to tilt against, I became surplus to requirements, a graying rebel without a curse.

From 2009, a rush of iconoclastic young acts like Odd Future, SALEM, Grimes, and Kendrick Lamar reinvigorated the musical landscape, all heavily aided by Pitchfork and the FADER during their peak reach. This was the healthiest and most dynamic period of personality and creativity since the halcyon explosion of rave, baggy, hardcore, shoegaze, rap, grunge, and Britpop from 1988-1992. Having experienced that period as a teenager, I was qualified and compelled to tell my readers and viewers that yes, you are in fact living through a time people will ache to remember for the rest of their lives.

Watching 2009-2013 pollinate, bloom and die from afield — I turned 40 in 2015 — was at points very exciting, and I flirted with Tony Wilson-style engagements with a few ascendant acts. Ultimately though, musicians want to do their own thing, and external input, while initially flattering, leads to a predictable pattern of paranoia, mistrust and annoyance. I still root for and recommend all of the material that drew me to offer my services to these bands, but most have since faltered artistically, or broken up. For my part, age meant considering the optics of inserting myself in someone else’s story, a la Mos Def’s pitiable elbow-in during Odd Future’s national television debut.

The shots across the bow, as I look back on the bounty of the early 2010s, were the coastal collectives Odd Future and A$AP Mob in hip-hop, and in indie, M83’s Saturdays = Youth. When M83 hit the scene, I was in my heaviest period of involvement with Pitchfork, and I absolutely despised Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. Others at the site were enraptured, but I heard nothing to distinguish Anthony Gonzalez from all the other milquetoast Ulrich Schnauss/Morr Music dream pop acts going at the time. Looking back there are textural hints of what would come with Before the Dawn Heals Us, but without the latter I would have no reason to ever revisit the former. In 2007, its soaring finale “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” soundtracked what might be the most famous skate video sequence of all time, and it felt like a new vibe was coming together.

Along with Chromatics’ Night Drive, M83’s Dawn broke new ground in fusing synthesizers and shoegaze, but it was Gonzalez who continued in his commitment to pop (Johnny Jewel made out fine sticking with his John Carpenter/JAMC thing). With “Kim and Jessie” from 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, it became clear how deeply Gonzalez was able to invoke the subtle emotional character of the past without tipping to pale impression. The hard-cut drum fills and seagull-screaming guitars sounded like youthful passion and insecurity, versus, say, INXS. Most aspiring guitar bands of the last five years are massively indebted to M83, but rarely held to account for his influence. Without “Claudia Lewis” and the enduring “Midnight City,” the 1975 and a dozen others simply would not exist.

In 2009, M83 was playing festivals, opening for Kings of Leon, and entertaining every offer you could imagine from every corner of the entertainment industry. Joseph Kosinski fought for him to soundtrack the ill-fated Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion. Gonzalez was miles removed from the ascendant bedroom electronic acts who’d be corralled under the Chillwave banner.

More than any individual artist, the Instagram-sunset “feels” of the Summer of Chillwave predicted the 2010s writ large. Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Neon Indian…this was all very agreeable, pleasantly dreamy music that functioned for twenty-somethings in much the same way Owl City did for tweens; from the outset, these artists were interpreted as tokens of always-fading youth, a This is Our Music moment for a generation locked into a neverending curation of the self. This process was comprehensible from the opening notes of “Feel it All Around,” and we were inundated with Chillwave nostalgia within six months of Carles coining the genre (yes, I own a Genre Shirt).

Chillwave was too samey, vague and socially amenable to engender zealous fans, and while it endured through to decent later entries from Tycho and a few other stalwarts, headier and more visually aggressive artists like Oneohtrix Point Never (0PN) and Unicorn Kid pointed up the aesthetic and melodic boundaries of the genre that ultimately came to define music obsession in the early 2010s: Vaporwave.

Looking back on it, Vaporwave and the loathsome Seapunk were remarkably conservative, constrictive movements. In short, they were self-aware trends, and trendiness of that kind has been a derided, inauthentic pose in my lifetime, since the days of the Sloane Ranger / Preppy Handbooks. Almost no lasting music came from the oversubscribed Vaporwave moment, and the shit was so easy to make and package in a conforming way, it was impossible to filter good from bad before another avalanche of pseud chancers overwhelmed all critique. Its legacy is the continued and omnipresent use of mood boards (aka Starter Packs) to define the aesthetics of any movement.

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Daniel Lopatin was seized upon as religion by Pitchfork’s Sasha Geffen and a handful of others who pitched him as this generation’s Brian Eno. While Eccojams remains one of my favorite recordings, I was never taken with the undead Windham Hill geometries of his major releases. There was a predictable elitism to the critical embrace of Lopatin, a case of assigning the kids coalescing around /mu and other new communities Rifts/Returnal/Replica as homework.

This pattern continued, as young fans were cowed by the site’s preeminence into a sense of responsibility to “get” this stuff, or face the intellectual shame of the alternative. That relationship — a place of dogmatic authority — was one Pitchfork never dreamed it would arrive at, and in their fractured lack of a collective identity, never recognized. This granted me a foothold, and I took the critical position of exposing their hypocrisy; when writers began to refer to their friends’ professionally-managed bands — bands with carefully-orchestrated marketing campaigns — as “DIY,” and started promoting their own corporate-sponsored events at 285 Kent as “underground” shows, I sort of lost my shit.

(If I could take a mulligan on the last year of my original Twitter account, I would, but of course some psycho took it over after I quit, and made things that much worse, and impossible to clean up. Considering the shit other people went through, I can’t really complain. “Listening to victims” has been weaponized to accelerate and validate ludicrous ax-grinding slander that should be instantly called and snuffed out, but the seething temerity of conspiratorial insecurity is the order of the day.)

During this period Pitchfork was making hundreds of thousands of dollars every month, and its founder bought a million-dollar apartment in Brooklyn. The entire staff was engaged in a cosplay LARP in which they pretended the things they were doing were as important as the things that inspired them simply because they came to pass. There was no concern that they were made possible by advertising and sponsorship from massive corporations; so desperate was their desire to attain cool and embody the unexamined heroes they dreamed of being mentioned alongside that they never interrogated what was making the illusion corporeal. Some of them can see this in hindsight; others cling to their self-sanctified naivete, selling notions silly as “cognitive capitalism is ruining music.” If you could free yourself from the erotic narcissism of theory-spooling, and the cheap self-righteousness of scolding faceless corporations, you might have noticed the massive resurgence in Soulseek activity over the last five years. Music’s fine. There just aren’t that many people as invested in it as you hoped. Bandcamp is not uncovering a succession of Taylor Swifts for a reason.

I find it off-putting when music fans, and especially music critics, waffle on being asked to name their favorite songs or albums. People are just trying to learn about you with these questions; you’re not necessarily being judged, and if you feel exposed there’s a whole spectrum of qualifiers you can use to avoid dying on a particular hill. Favorite ≠ important, and neither signifies canonization outside your worldview. If I’m asked “What’s your favorite song of all time?” the answer since 1991 has unerringly been “To Here Knows When” by My Bloody Valentine. If you ask me for the most important song of all time, you will get the same answer, followed by blathering acknowledgement of historically-interred pieces like “In My Life,” “Good Vibrations,” and “I Feel Love” (in view of its difficult past, I’m all for renaming Mission Hill after Donna Summer).

If you ask me for the most important songs and records of the 2010s, I’ll start with Burial’s Rival Dealer, the most hallucinatory, emotionally transportive suite of sound and space since Vangelis’ soundtrack to Blade Runner. Contained in its cathedral finale “Come Down to Us” is the most chilling moment in any piece of music I’ve heard since “To Here Knows When”: an as-yet unidentified sample of a woman imploring, “You are not alone,” followed by an explosion of star-gazing sonic cinema.

Initially saddled with cheap “pop music’s Banksy!” hype owing to his preference for personal anonymity, Burial’s early work brought the temporal world-building of DJ Shadow’s best collage material to dubstep. His debut launched Hyperdub, and was named the best album of 2006 by The Wire. Its centerpiece “U Hurt Me” sampled Ashanti and the Black Hawk Down soundtrack; his hardened follow-up Untrue perfected this trick in “Archangel,” sampling Ray J and the Metal Gear Solid 2 OST. For my money, “Etched Headplate,” from deeper into Untrue, is the definitive first-wave Burial cut.

Granted, I am hardly the first critic to hurl superlatives Burial’s way, but I wasn’t taken with much of the work leading up to Rival Dealer. I felt the Four Tet and Thom Yorke collaborations were loping and bland, and that “Street Halo” — while elegiac and beautiful — failed to demonstrate any growth or real inspiration. “Truant”/”Rough Sleeper” was regressive to the point of redundancy; I’d essentially written Burial off before I heard “Rival Dealer.”

The song calls back to an underground rave and drug culture I never knew, but for the music and the poppers my friend’s cousin smuggled over in her purse; grounded by subtle, bubbling percussion rather than the sort of clever drum and bass breaks the piece almost invites (think Squarepusher’s “Tundra”), “Rival Dealer” relies instead on Burial’s trademark use of stereo space and a bleary, discordant synthesizer wail. Rival Dealer’s stark, iconic cover was an overt declaration: this record was his return to form. The crisp early-morning air mixing with stale sweat, smoke and booze, the come-down delirium of a heavy E binge, the terror of a wide-boy stare that dictates social boundaries…it’s all here.

What makes Rival Dealer so captivating is its second act, as the title track fades into familiar ghostly ambience and gives way to “Hiders,” an atypically brief piece reincarnating the mystical positivity of cloying inspirational movies from the 1980s. Before the American streaming series Stranger Things simplified nostalgia to the point of inchoate commercialized debasement, Burial was returning from across the universe with a message of near-holy empathy. The masterpiece “Come Down to Us” was immediately heralded for closing with Lana Wachowski’s moving speech on gender alignment, a loud issue at the close of Barack Obama’s second term that persists to this day.

While Burial’s music was never exceedingly masculine in tone or message, there is no mistaking the emotional evolution that begins with “Distant Lights” and concludes with “Come Down to Us.” It is a perfect career arc, opening with confusion, ambition, and feigned confidence, focused on music and culture above all, before giving way to honesty, empathy, and love.