But this year was more stylistically inchoate than ever, with a zillion strong acts running leaderless and wild. Whether one invested time in the glacial patience testing of AGALLOCH's epic Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore), the twin-drum widescreen psychedelia of KYLESA's Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist), HOLY GRAIL's shreddingly NWOBHM-tastic Crisis in Utopia (Prosthetic), or NACHTMYSTIUM's masterpiece of kvlt-gloom-gone-New-Order-melancholia, Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. II (Century Media), there were all too many ways to spend one's metal bucks without ever finding the one big act that was going to unify a stadium of headbangers.
Underground music in 2010 moved in a direction that was decidedly dreamlike and shapeless. If in years past we saw a proliferation of bands making sharp guitar noises backed by brittle and busy beats, more recent trends have steered clear of pointy edges and distinct lines. Witness the hazy and bittersweet calliope of BEACH HOUSE's Teen Dream (Sub Pop), the deep layers of gauze wrapped around your ears by ZOLA JESUS's Stridulum (101 Distribution), and the rhythmic, pulse-surfing supernova of GLASSER's Ring (True Panther Sounds).
And those are just the more conventional dream-poppers. For the real outer reaches of the musical fugue state, you need look no farther than the dark recesses of SALEM's King Night (IAMSOUND), an engrossing musical experience that takes the mesmeric siren call of synthy goth and marries it to a druggy soft-focus vocal approach and a pummeling crunk backbeat that shouldn't work but does, if only through its own naive bravado. Similar excursions on homonymous EPs by OOOOO (on Triangle) and †‡† (pronounced "Ritualzzz," on Babylon Dogs) — outfits often lumped in with Salem as "witch house" — yield ominously ephemeral results. These three bands showed that in 2010 it was possible to make faceless computer-assisted music that's transporting, mind-bogglingly weird, and yet utterly moving.
Reality avoidance was not the sole domain of bizarro subgenres. Both the biggest of commercial acts and the lowliest of underground acts, for the most part, ignored the concerns of the real world. We are in the midst of unending war, with climate change, escalating poverty, and growing economic disparity; political groups on both the left and the right marched on Washington. So where were the political anthems of 2010? Certainly not in TAYLOR SWIFT's awkward teenage "Dear John" kiss-off. Or KATY PERRY's "California Gurls" popsicle-melting summer diversion. Neither were they to be found in the outer-space weirdness of NICKI MINAJ or the, uh, outer-space weirdness of JANELLE MONÁE. For all their critically lauded multiple-personality precociousness, there was little socio-political conviction in either of the respectable debuts from these two.
In fact, you had to look hard to find the social critics of the pop world. Sure, you had M.I.A. throwing audio pipe bombs with the deliciously vicious Maya (XL Interscope), coaxing out anti-complacency odes that mixed her usual international swing swag with caustic power-drill rhythm sections. But the real musical subversive of 2010, hiding in plain sight, was unavoidable pop irritant KE$HA.