My Year in Music, 2009
So here it comes, the inevitable year-end list that nobody really needed, but that I feel the need to provide anyway. For this is America, and I have access to a blog, and if making a year-end list not in the Bill of Rights, it should be. I try and do things a bit differently however. I'm not into the whole top ten thing, or even the idea of the list. In my view, it's part of this commodification of culture that we should try real hard to avoid, though we inevitably participate in it. We assign these works a cultural value, and if we're smart, we try to find underrated and overrated (read: undervalued and overvalued) records and try to make a cultural profit through our acumen. It's kind of an ugly thing that reduces music to things. That's not how anyone who loves music actually listens to it. First of all, I rarely listen to things in the strict chronological order that the year-end list suggests. A lot of my year's listening is catch up, older things that slipped through the cracks in previous year. I also don't haven't listened to anywhere near the number of things that the top ten list's assumption of objectivity seems to require. There are some things I just never got to (Real Estate, Grooms) and there are some things that I just never got into (if someone can convince me that the Phoenix album is not boring, they're welcome to it, since I seem to be the minority report here). So I don't try and do any sort of list here; I just try to capture the way I lived with music for a year. There are no rankings, I just note the records I felt notable. I also didn't even bother trying to do a decade wrap-up; I was 11 when this decade began. I have no perspective. For those who are interested, my list for last year can be found here.
My first few months of the year weren't typical for me, as far as music or as far as anything goes, since I was in the People's Republic of China. I'm not much for Chinese music. Some of the folk stuff is fun, but the pop is dreadful; the Chinese like big, stupid ballads and syrupy pop. I found myself retreating to the most idiomatically American forms of music: hip-hop and the blues. My favorite musical moments in China, in no particular order:
1) I had to sing on at least two separate occasions. I sang the first verse and chorus of "Gone Gone Gone" by Lefty Frizzell for a group of Yi villagers (who sang some awesome drinking songs). I also sang the verse of "Billie Jean" for a high school English class in the Yunnanese resort town of Lijiang.
2) I heard a Mandarin version of "Bizarre Love Triangle" that was really sweet.
3) Club DJs in the city of Guilin in Guangxi played "The Breaks," to the great joy of the Americans in the club, and to the general befuddlement of the Chinese.
4) Two walking around listening to hip-hop moments. One, sitting in the Beijing Train Station, listening to "Chinese New Year" by Clipse. Two, walking down the street in Kunming, Yunnan province, listening to "Let Me Ride" by Dr. Dre. Speaking of, never really listened to The Chronic before this year. What an album. You know, Snoop Dogg used to be an inspired lyricist before becoming a bad comedian's punchline. And Dr. Dre used to be the best producer anywhere, ever.
Being in China was kind of refreshing, but also kind of isolating, since I was cut off from the blogosphere and from KWUR, where I generally find out about music. It was isolating because I love new music and I love indie music, whatever that means; it makes my life noticeably better. But it was refreshing in that I dodged a lot of the madness that tends to go on in those quarters. Case in point: I was out of the country for a lot of the Merriweather Post Pavilion insanity, and I think it gave me a good amount of perspective on the album. Although there are honest critics and lovers of the album (our GM Kenny for the former, our MD DB for the latter), I think a lot of the rhetoric going on over the album is overheated and really about issues other than the album itself. I strike a middle position. On one hand, I do genuinely like the album. It is original; there are a lot of things that sound like Animal Collective, but not a lot that match it, either for content or in quality. What Animal Collective is doing, blurring the boundaries of electronic music and old fashioned tribal drone, seems distinct to me. It's also a very engaging record, with a good beat, lots of catchy, joyful sound. To the critics, I would say, don't throw it out because the poseurs like it now. But to the lovers, I would suggest that you check out Sung Tongs or even Strawberry Jam, and tell me if you really, truly think that MPP is Animal Collective's best work. Their earlier stuff is just much more human. MPP isn't the record that will bring the messiah; it's not even Animal Collective's best stuff.
Near the end of my stay in China, I raided a local record store (that sold Chinese Democracy, shit you not) and got a few soul discs for super cheap. The best of the bunch, by far, was a collection of J.J. Barnes. There are some soul artists who are unknown because they just weren't that great, and there are some soul artists who are inexplicably unknown (at least, to the average listener), and J.J. Barnes is definitely in the latter. Basically, like Betty LaVette with Atlantic, my impression is that Barnes' career never took off in a big way because Berry Gordy arbitrarily decided to shit on him (remember, this is a man who did not like Marvin Gaye's version of "Grapevine"). Barnes' stuff is Motown soul at its best, with a mighty Northern stomp propelling the whole thing. He really should be a household name.
When I came back from China, my big record was the Elvis Perkins in Dearland self-titled album. Elvis Perkins is inexplicably ignored by critics and music lovers, and yet he has quietly been writing the best songs of the decade. Your typical Perkins' composition is a tightly written contraption that glows with organ and the immaculate timbre of Perkins' voice, pop songs, but pop songs filled with such brilliant lyrics and honest passion that they can melt virtually anyone. It was my distinct privilege to see Perkins in concert at the Gargoyle this fall. America, for the love of God, listen to this man!
One record waiting for me when I got back to KWUR was the new Lee Fields album, "My World." Lee Fields was another one of those soul artists in the early 70s who just, for whatever reason, never hit it big despite an insane amount of talent. I generally hold back on endorsing this kind of soul revival disc, because you tend to suffer from the "he's still got it" syndrome; you might like it a bit, but at best it's only as good as the original stuff, and at worst, it's really tacky. I have no such reservations here. This album feels new; it's authentic, no-bs soul (helmed by a man with an insane voice), but the ever-so-slightly electrified and distorted instrumentation will likely keep the interest of kids raised on Sonic Youth. An honest-to-goodness terrific album.
Fall was when I finally caught up to the new Dirty Projectors album. I was a fan of Rise Above, but damn, this one really knocks it out of the park. It's an interesting album (my favorite kind of interesting, pop made out of idiosyncratic parts roped together, pop that zigs where Miley would zag) that rewards seconds listens, but it's also eminently approachable and hell, even funky (See: Stillness Is The Move). It also is just plain beautiful. Usually, classically-trained or experimental background are some of the most bullshit terms out there, but it's nice to hear singers who genuinely have range, are concerned about clear pitch, and do cool things with their voices. Finally, an indie album that captures the verve, energy and innovative moxie of New Music. Neat!
My year was generally ruled by loud music, starting with Times New Viking. I guess the term is sludgegaze. I just like pop that sounds young, imperfect and like it comes from another planet, because, er, I often feel young, imperfect and like I come from another planet. I rarely feel like a Rihanna song.
The Dutchess and The Duke album would be the exception to my loud music fall and winter. A lot of indie albums tap the sixties for inspiration, but not a lot go to the sound these guys tap into: namely, the peculiar, empty rich wooden echo around the human voice you find in mid to late sixties folk. There is an existential quavering you find in this album that's just really penetrating, the way the voice is allowed to expand on the track in a way that reveals just how vulnerable the human voice sounds when it is extended out. Really lovely.
Really, my late-fall/early-winter was all about two excellent, related albums: The Almighty Defenders' self-titled and the new King Khan and the BBQ Show album. My first listen to the Almighty Defenders album was really something. We had it on vinyl only, so I had to do the review in one sitting on the listening room couch in KWUR. I went from being, hey, this is good, to OMG, this is the best fucking thing ever in a remarkably short amount of time, finished the review in about an hour, and immediately ran into the air studio and demanded that DJ DB play it on the air right now. Both these albums are remarkable, gritty reinventions of soulful garage rock. Thinking about why this sound so appeals to me, two things come to mind. One, I love pop when it gives in to its most poppy tendencies, and it seems to me that that is what's going on on both these albums: screaming, bratty vocals, sing-a-long vocal hooks, downright superfluous organ, awesome guitar and fuck, a beat. I also like the story contained in each of these albums: hey, the fuck-up kids form a band and hey, turns out they're pretty good at their instruments, and hey, turns out they write some pretty catchy songs, and hey, let's rock out! Beats "ivy league kids buy a sequencer" any day.
I did some catch-up in December, and went on a wild rip session in the KWUR stacks. Very worthwhile. First of all, I got to listen to the terrific new Raekwon album. It seems that the critical beef on this album is it just sounds like old Wu-Tang. Well, yes, yes it does, but can we stop for a moment and think about what an insane critique that is? Imagine if James Joyce came back from the dead and wrote another book that was just as good as Ulysses, and a critic dismissed it as just that old Joyce shit. Yes, it does sound like old Wu-Tang; the best beats in the business, and lyrical virtuosity that makes your jaw drop. Also, there's a poignancy involved in that old sound; it is the sound of an art form that was abandoned before it reached its full potential, and a troubled community that became ignored and marginalized before its problems were solved. If anyone wants to know what the surreal experience of living in 2009 was like, they just need to listen to "Party in the USA" followed by Raekwon's "Cold Outside."
I am a really big fan of the Those Darlins record. I once heard a friend describe Heidegger's summaries of Socrates and Plato as "not an accurate representation of what they said, but an accurate representation of what it felt like to be them." That's the way I feel about this record. It's not Johnny Cash, and thank God it's not another ersatz "cowpunk" album, chained to its genre. It has the energy and drive of what it was like to make music like Johnny Cash, and hell, that's what we need. Real fun, real catchy, and great live show to boot.
I don't rank. That said, the Jeff The Brotherhood album is the best album of the year. Great, super satisfying loud music. I'll just summarize the experience of seeing them live. I had a rough couple of days of work, and I went to the show on Tuesday just for the hell of it, just to unwind. Talk about catharsis; after fucking rocking out and losing my mind with say, thirty other people as they killed it on the Gargoyle floor, my neck was sore the next day from headbanging, and my arm was sore from fist-pumping. God bless an album where the drumming is the star of the show. And like I said before, I don't rank. But I'm gonna have to concur with our GM Kenny here and say the half a minute or so in the middle of "Growing" where the drums and guitar interlock is the best half minute of music produced this year.
I'm going to just assume that someone has told you about The Antlers album already. How it's gorgeous and emotionally devastating. How it will make you not want to leave your bed. Well, alright, they're right. The power of this album lies in the half-whispered, nakedly emotional, super precise lyrics layered over the droning guitar and the steady drumming. Goddamn it.
That's my year in albums. Now I'm going to list some orphaned tracks (where I really just liked one song but not the whole album, or never got around to the whole album) that caught my attention this year.
Percussion Gun by White Rabbits: DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS! DRUMS DRUMS DRUMS! Gee, it turns out that when Britt Daniels is producing your album, he can help make it pretty fucking good. Also, dig the little bass lick here. Sweet.
As a whole, and I say this as a Fiery Furnaces fan, I was largely disappointed by "I'm Going Away." The problem is that it's pretty uneven. There's a lot of filler and tracks that don't really do anything for me. On the other hand, there are tracks like The End Is Near that remind you that the Friedberger siblings wrote some of the smartest, tightest, most sentimental pop songs of the decade. Love the piano on this one.
I reviewed the new Islands record for the station here. As the review says, I'm generally a fan of Islands, but I thought this last record was pretty mediocre. Except for the track No You Don't, which has a certain chilly, electronic funk, bubbly synth, and a weird electronic sitar solo. Not to mention a chorus that lends itself well to singing along.
People really love Neko Case's solo work. I think they have good reason to, but I'm not one of them. I just can never get into the meander of her work, the way the songs are sort of content just to sit there and let you dwell in her voice. On the other hand, few better places to sit and dwell than in her lovely, powerful voice, singing some of the best lyrics in the business. Case in point: This Tornado Loves You.
Dunno how I feel about the Girls album as a whole. Do know how I feel about Lust For Life. I'm always a sucker for the pop song that slowly fills in, that's glad to be there, that insists that you're going to sing along with the bratty vocals and bob your head. That's it right there, down to the handclaps.
Oh gosh, I was going to try and keep this to five, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include the terrific single by Generationals, When They Fight They Fight. Takes pretty much all the elements I love in soul and cobbles them together in this intriguing indie song structure that is super catchy.
Orphans from other years that got stuck on repeat this year:
Listen, I don't know why I like Hungry Heart (by The Boss, if you didn't know). I just do, a whole lot. Might have to do with the insistent piano. Might have to do with my favorite rock/soul instrument, the baritone sax. Might have to do with - God help me - the sax solo. I just like it a lot. Leave me alone. Shut the door. I'm going to listen to it again.
Yo, indie scenester, I'm real happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but The Flying Burrito Brothers had the best love song of all time (Hot Burrito #1).
Holy Christ, how did it take me so long to listen to Bon Iver? Listen to For Emma for a second. Jesus, how does anyone make music that is that beautiful?
So, that was my year in music. Looking back, had some highlights, but overall, kind of mediocre. Whatever. Great thing about years? They end. Here's to 2010, guys.