Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Superfluous Look at 2011

Excuse me, I would like to begin this post with a little antagonism: Seth, you and AV Club are so wrong. This was a great year for music, absolutely ridden with important records. The variety and divergence among best-of lists around the Internet attests not to a lack of definitive music, but to an outpouring, an overflowing, a superfluity! On top of all the thrilling original music produced, this year saw massive reissues and singles collections from Disco Inferno, Talk Talk/ Mark Hollis, Throbbing Gristle, This Mortal Coil, The Radio Dept., and Ty Segall (see FACT mag’s best reissues for many, many more). Dusted came through again with their superb retrospective series, as varied and surprising a collection of lists as could be expected of any gang of hard-core music nerds. You can even find a jazz list there, if that’s your thing. (And given how above ground underground pop music has become, maybe jazz is where it’s at for those who need that sweet rarefied snobbery. It’s pretty much the only way to guarantee that Carson Daly won’t start stammering about your favorite band in the middle of the night between infomercials for four-course push-up pops and that lap-dance workout video.) I recommend the year-end features over at FACT, Altered Zones, and Gorilla Vs. Bear.

This will be annoyingly lengthy, but I’ll now put my favorites from the year into list form. First I’ll do 20 records that I considered the best, and then I’ll present a list of some records that I love but can’t take credit for knowing about before I started poring over all the year-in-review lists like those mentioned above.

  1. Panda Bear, Tomboy – A joyously claustrophobic album in which Noah Lennox’s exquisite stacked vocal harmonies are tethered to the ground by rigid techno rhythms and heavily processed, unrecognizable sampling and instrumentation. You can hear him abandoning the infantile wonder of his earlier work for a more mature understanding of the limits inherent in reality and of those further structures of order and limitation we erect for ourselves.
  2. Wild Beasts, Smother – With every album, Wild Beasts become more and more by doing less and less, and you wonder if their fourth or fifth record will consist merely of the sound of a solitary lusty breath of air.
  3. Destroyer, Kaputt – I don’t know what it is that allows Dan Bejar to inject so much gravitas and loss into the probably off-the-cuff line, “I thumbed through the books on your shelf,” or how this album always manages to sound simultaneously exhausted by the world and alive to every sensation (like the character in Miranda July’s 2011 film The Future who resolves to notice everything, especially things said by people with their hands on doorknobs). Maybe this is “poem rock.”
  4. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake – I had no problem with Radiohead’s latest album, but if you’re looking for the better example of well-crafted melancholy British post-rock, here it undeniably is, with lyrical turns of phrase and imagery so doggedly political and viscerally unforgettable as to shut up at least a few citizen-chauvinists: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/ The fruit is deformed children.”
  5. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 – In the blurb at Kranky.net, it is described as “a pagan work of physical resonance within a space once reserved for the hallowed breath of the divine.” This reminds me strongly of the Phillip Larkin poem “Church Going,” in which the speaker finds himself lingering in an old Catholic church, trying to reckon the symbolism of the place with its physical actuality and temporal nature. Hecker’s work is concerned not only with the seriousness of this setting, but also with the related theme of destruction, represented by the album art depicting a piano being pushed off a building (the act portrayed in the photo is actually an annual ritual, which helps to enforce the thematic relationship I think Hecker is elaborating). Larkin’s speaker notes a similar relationship: that the gravity surrounding the place comes not from above, but rather from the graveyard, where “so many dead lie around.” Hecker recorded the source material on a church organ before processing it on a computer, stripping the sound of its reality yet perhaps imbuing it with a different sort, the mediated hyperreality we’re all pretty much acquainted with by now. In that regard it’s similar to James Ferraro’s hyperreal Far Side Virtual – listening to which feels a lot like seeing through the special sunglasses worn by the hero of John Carpenter’s They Live, but if instead of corporate drones, the disguised aliens looked liked iPads  – except it’s much more beautiful to hear.
  6. Metronomy, The English Riviera – “The Look” is a marvel of clean lines and unconventional plotting. The low and high ends of “She Wants” pull away and snap back like a rubber band. Other highlights include the expansively funky refrain of “The Bay” and the jittery buzz of “Corinne,” but the whole album is a perfect blend of impersonal post-punk and sunned electro-funk.
  7. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost – I agree with Seth’s comment about this one. A whole lot of Album seemed second-rate set against the flawless “Hellhole Ratrace.” Here they avoid that problem by, instead of writing one excellent song, writing 11 equally excellent songs, each containing multiple excellent songs compacted into one.
  8. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life – Probably the most fun and feel-good music I heard all year. The album keeps propelling you forward into cathartic heights of emotion with its surging refrains and sure-fire guitar leads. Epic rock-and-roll led by Pink Eyes in his most dynamic and relatable performance. He basically climbed on top of me when I saw them perform this year.
  9. Ducktails, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics – I’m not sure what to think of Real Estate’s latest, which seems a little too cleaned up and milquetoast. Maybe I’ll come around on it, but for now I’ll keep enjoying the less-talked-about side-project album, whose central song, “Killin the Vibe,” has possibly the best hook of the year, knows it, and so in what is maybe the laziest thing ever just repeats the one hook over and over, overdubbing more guitars and vocal riffing at every round and dissolving into a euphoric delirium.
  10. Twin Sister, In Heaven – This band is too young to be making music this sure handed and imaginative. Their style is kind of difficult for me to pin down, but each song seems like a little sub-genre in itself, so convincing and precise a sound-world for a pop song that I almost get bored by the panache. Listen to “Kimmi in a Rice Field” to hear Cocteau Twins stranded in Twin Peaks.
10 more excellent albums submitted without comment:
John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
Twerps, Twerps
Arctic Monkeys, Suck It And See
Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine
Atlas Sound, Parallax
Craft Spells, Idle Labor
Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L
Blackout Beach, Fuck Death

Finally, the following records flew under my radar for most of the year. They’re undoubtedly as good and in some cases clearly better than many of the more visible records released this year.

  1. The Babies, The Babies – While many columnists at Dusted offered long lists of favorites, Talya Cooper only pointed readers straight to this bizarrely neglected debut album featuring members of the better-known bands Vivian Girls and Woods. The Babies sound so much more immediate and charismatic than either of those bands, though. For a bunch of ragged pop rock songs with predictable sidesteps into folk, garage, and punk, this album cuts through the rabble with audible ease (maybe it’s that insouciant cool that Seth was referring to in his 90s post below this).
  2. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine – This album possesses an aura that is difficult to describe, but as soon as the piano and ambient electronics begin hovering over the backdrop of cafe chatter on the first track, I know I’m listening to an album with a personality that exists apart from its makers. The whole thing, with Hopkins’s sepia-toned arrangements anchored by King Creosote’s sweet and melancholy lyrics, sounds earthy, rooted, and comforting.
  3. LV & Joshua Idehen, Routes – Slippery London dance music that feels incredibly alert and alive. Standout tracks are “Northern Line” and “Primary Colours.”
  4. Christina Vantzou, No. 1 – This is something of a hybrid ambient/ neo-classical album, written on a computer and interpreted by a seven-piece orchestra. It’s slow music that should carry you away as soon as the first track enters. I find it to be really similar to Grouper in terms of tone, timbre, and movement.
  5. The Sandwitches, Mrs. Jones’ Cookies – Exemplary San Francisco psych-pop. I think one thing that sets them apart (aside from those incredibly high-pitched vocal trills) is how much country music flits around this record.
  6. Total Control, Henge Beat – In addition to Twerps and the next entry, Kitchen’s Floor, this makes three Australian garage/ punk bands that are just doing everything right. I wish I knew more about the scene or scenes from which these bands are coming, but it’s news to me, and honestly, a little mystique always helps music to sound thrilling and precarious. Iceage is good and all … not as good as this.
  7. Kitchen’s Floor, Look Forward to Nothing – Dirty garage with chugging guitars, slurred, sullen vocals, and a casual rhythm section suggestive of the early 1990s. The apathy feels earned. “116” is one of the more immediate and visceral songs I’ve heard in a while.
  8. Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/ The Dream – Following Castlemania, this is the second release of the year from a prolific band whose enthusiasm bleeds through every krautrock-tinged pysch-rock fever dream of a song.
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The 90’s

So here’s the beginning of what I hope is a productive discussion I’m interested in all of us having (with very few sentences as confusing as this one). I recently bought the super-deluxo reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream after a protracted period of debate with myself. I’ve listened to the first of the two and I’m passingly familiar with the singles from the second. I also re-read the Pitchfork review of the two reissues which contained a link to this little gem. Reading that piece made me start thinking about the wave of 90’s nostalgia that’s washed up on the shores of 2011 and a point that Klosterman once made about coolness. So here we go.

There’s an essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs where Chuck Klosterman elaborates on his admiration for Billy Joel by repeatedly emphasizing how cool Billy Joel isn’t. (This is kind of a brilliant strategy because no one in their right mind would argue that Billy Joel is cool. Uncoolness is to Billy Joel as perceived cuddliness is to koalas. By conceding the most obvious point of attack as the core argument of the essay, Klosterman pre-empts the majority of the criticism he could face. I suppose you could still say that Joel’s music sucks but that would seem mean since 1) even his supporters already go out of their way to make it clear he’s lame and 2) that’s actually a LOT more subjective of a question than whether or not he’s cool. None of this is remotely relevant to what I’m talking about here, though). Re-reading that Spin piece immediately made me think that Billy Corgan was the Billy Joel of the 90’s (hey, they even have the same first name!) because while the Smashing Pumpkins could certainly be a great rock band, would anyone ever say they were a cool rock band?

Billy Corgan’s problem, I think, is largely that he became a star right when it was becoming impossible for a public figure to exert complete dominance over what that meant. Think about Billy Joel again for a second–even his staunchest admirers would have to admit he’s not a handsome man. He looks sort of like a mouse whose wish was to become a Jewish man. It was possible when he was establishing himself for music fans to appreciate his music without ever having to contemplate his celebrity. A music fan could consume his output without ever seeing an image of the man himself (assuming, of course, they never bought his records). By the time the Smashing Pumpkins came around, though, MTV was integral to a band’s ability to break through into the popular culture mainstream. Unfortunately for Corgan’s ego, this also meant that music fans also had 1) a lot more freedom in constructing their own ideas of a celebrity’s personality and 2) a lot more shiny material from which to build that crow’s nest.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune of bringing up the subject of music around me after I’ve had more than two drinks has doubtless heard me pontificate about my love for Pavement. The reason I had such a protracted period of debate with myself about picking up those two reissues (well, other than the fact that I am an idiot who only thinks about irrelevant nonsense) is the famous slam that Stephen Malkmus makes on the Smashing Pumpkins in the song “Range Life.” Corgan responded angrily and the two enjoyed the sort of adversarial public relationship you’d expect to find between the kid who was actually the smartest in school and the one with the highest GPA. The Spin article kind of supports that idea, since Corgan can’t seem to stand anybody not thinking he set the entire universe in motion. The problem is, as Klosterman says, that the only surefire way to not be cool is to WANT to be cool. This is why Stephen Malkmus will always be cooler than Billy Corgan. (Also, Malkmus’s music has held up a lot better in my opinion). Corgan always seemed obsessed with people thinking he was the best.

Notably, the other band mentioned in the Spin article is equally uncool. Apart from that one TERRRRRRIBLE single (“Black Hole Sun”) I doubt anybody even remembers Soundgarden at all. Their music was the nadir of 90’s alternative movement and the best example of how a lot of the “alternative” Seattle bands who positioned themselves against 80’s hair metal were just the same warmed-over crunching guitars with lead singers who sounded like they were undergoing treatment for severe hernias instead of the pretty boys of the Sunset Strip. Even when they were popular, I don’t think anybody who didn’t spend most of their day under the influence of something would have called Soundgarden “cool.” Today, I’d be shocked if anyone not in his immediate family could pick Kim Thayil out of a lineup.

I’ve thought about a lot of the bands who were a part of the 90’s grunge/alternative explosion and most of it just strikes me as really boring and lame. Steve Albini once derided the Smashing Pumpkins for being too commercial but they’re one of the few bands from that period whose records I would ever even consider putting on. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever made it more than halfway through the first side of a Shellac or Big Black album, there’s a chapter in the DSM IV about you). Billy Corgan may not have been cool, but he was certainly better than most of the others.

A lot of this plays into the en vogue Simon Reynolds-driven nostalgia discussion happening in many of the internet’s nerdier corners. The points I want to discuss here are, roughly, as follows:

1) How is coolness/image related to a band’s success in their period? Does that image complicate their legacy/longevity/influence?

2) What does the specific 90’s rehash tell us about this trend and how those bands look now?

3) To what extent was early 90’s grunge and alt-rock a second punk explosion/rejection of 80’s hair metal/extent of the indie ethos?

 

Any thoughts? Feel free to bring more questions to the fore here.

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Year’s End

The end of every year is a pleasant time for me as I love reminiscing and making lists of things. In that spirit, then, here are some of my favorite records from this year. They’re in no particular order (though I will note which was my favorite overall) but these are the discs that spent the most time in my player this year.

The Decemberists–The King Is Dead

On some level, I think this record was only released so a bunch of uncreative journalists could call it the best R.E.M. record that came out this year (the venerable, departed Athens college rockers’ record Collapse into Now was a little underrated in my opinion but the Decemberists album is much better). Peter Buck guests on three of the songs, including lead single “Down By The Water” and the album does owe something of a debt to R.E.M., amongst others. It’s nice to hear that kind of variety and absorption of influences nearly a decade into a very strange career of making a really specific kind of literary indie rock. If someone were looking for an entry point to the band’s catalogue, The King Is Dead would make a great primer. The big knock against The Decemberists is their penchant for writing long, theatrical songs about history and literature. This reached its apotheosis on their previous record, The Hazards of Love, which was something of a heavy metal/folk opera/concept album heavily influenced by British folk. Given the obvious excesses of that undertaking, King is a much more stripped-down affair that eschews the band’s usual theatricality in favor of a much looser sound that’s influenced by country and classic American rock. There’s still the inevitable dash of pretension–second single “Calamity Song” references Infinite Jest, but if your objection to The Decemberists was based on their love of writing fifteen-minute epics about Confederate wives, you still might find a lot to enjoy on this disc. It spent most of January in heavy rotation in my listening diet. Pay special attention to “January Hymn” and “June Hymn,” the emotional centerpieces of the album that showcase frontman Colin Meloy’s gift for weaving small details into a narrative that perfectly captures the fleet of passing time.

Destroyer–Kaputt

My favorite thing about art is the chance you get to see the world through the lens of another person, a sort of guided tour of another person’s consciousness. One of my favorite guides is Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, an affable lunatic who makes the kind of pop records Alfred Jarry would probably have liked. His release this year was an interesting departure from his earlier work, heavily influenced by Roxy Music’s Avalon and lite-pop from the 80’s and early 90’s. With the sort of hushed sonics that would soundtrack a visit to Shoney’s as a backdrop, Bejar croons typically occluded lyrics in his unmistakable tone. A sample line: “I want you to love me/you send me a coffin of roses.” While he claims to have no real idea what the songs on this record are about, I read them as confronting loneliness and imperialism in both private life and the world at large. But maybe that’s just because I see that everywhere.

Wire–Red Barked Tree

I will never understand how Wire has managed to stay so fucking cool for 30 years but they’ve done it without breaking a sweat. Released in January, Red Barked Tree is another in a career full of staggering achievements. While most of the best songs are voiced by Colin Newman, album highlight Graham Lewis sings album highlight “Bad Worn Thing.” Lead single “Please Take” is among the coldest songs the band has ever written in a career full of cold songs. Name another band that could work the lines “fuck off out of my face” into a four-minute pop song. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to keep making reliably great records into your sixties.

Okkervil River–I Am Very Far

Okkervil River is one of my three or four favorite working bands in the entire world and their 2011 album was probably my overall favorite of the year. Will Sheff is an incredibly literary songwriter who manages not to be too ostentatiously wordy in his writing. Who else could write a song about a girl finding her father dead that references a segment of Beowulf? Sheff creates entire worlds that he populates with characters who all seem as unhinged as his singing. Helping the teetering-on-the-brink-of-oblivion aesthetic is the fact that the band sounds like they’re seconds from coming unglued in every performance. While Okkervil’s last two records explored themes of fame and celebrity in the modern era, I Am Very Far focuses on more personal and esoteric matters. Most of the songs address mortality (the most commonly repeated word on the record is “throat”) but the track sequencing leaves the listener with a hopeful note. They were also the best concert I saw this year.

 

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks–Mirror Traffic

Stephen Malkmus doesn’t reinvent the wheel on any of his records–he perfects it. Liberally tipping his hat to influences from the Velvet Underground to Dylan to Todd Rundgren, Malkmus cranked out another album of unmistakably nuanced guitar rock. Although Beck’s production was unremarkably formless for such a big name, the record holds up as the best of Malkmus’s post-Pavement output. In interviews given around the record’s release, Malkmus commented that the lyrics were mostly tossed off in the studio as the group recorded. While this meant that it lacked a bit of the narrative cohesion that you might get in a Pavement album (if you’re the kind of person like I am who believes there’s more to those lyrics than meets the ear at first) there’s still a fair amount of nicely constructed “””poetry””‘ for any Deconstructionist.

 

Wild Flag–Wild Flag

And straight from one former Portlander to another, here’s Carrie Brownstein’s post-Sleater-Kinney guitar rock quartet! A quasi-supergroup featuring fellow Sleater-Kinney alumna Janet Weiss (incidentally, my favorite drummer), Mary Timony from Helium, and Rebecca Cole from the Minders, Wild Flag’s debut is probably the best straight-ahead guitar album of the year. Brownstein and Timony trade vocal duties but the Brownstein numbers stand out as being tighter and more rocking than Timony’s smokier numbers. Look no further than this for all your six-string needs.

 

Girls–Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

I was convinced that Girls were a one-hit wonder after their 2009 debut Album. They made a fool of me this year, though, with a much tighter sophomore effort. While Father, Son, and Holy Ghost lacks a standout track as good as “Hellhole Ratrace,” the album also doesn’t suffer from the same weak back-end of their previous record. The album isn’t necessarily any darker than its predecessor, though songwriter Christopher Owens does seem to explore his dysfunction with more care and self-pity (not in a bad way, totally) than before. Musically, this record finds the group stretching their sonic palate to include surf-rock, rockabilly, heavy metal, and 60’s soul. Highlight “Love Like a River” proves that Owens may indeed achieve his stated goal of becoming a songwriter for a pop starlet.

So that was the year. A decent year for music after the embarrassment of riches that was 2010. It was, as the AV Club noted, a year devoid of Important Records. Hopefully, the new year will see at least one of those.

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Give and Take

So, Christmas … You know, given how massive a year it’s been for a particular producer, remixing and re-fixing such giants as Adele, Radiohead, and Gil-Scott Heron, I’m surprised there’s yet to appear something like A Very Jamie xxmas. Ba-da-bing! (Is that what you say after a joke?)

The real reason I’m here is to share a song that is not necessarily a Christmas song, although it is titled “Xmas Song,” so maybe it is a Christmas song, I don’t know. Whether it’s strictly a proper holiday tune may be beside the point, because with its winning admixture of sardonic, bittersweet lyrics and celebratory guitar rock (a combination never before attempted, I should note), it seems fit to be played at year’s end. The opening lyrics humorously register the feeling that adult-human-being-hood and childhood are terribly far away but somehow parasitically intimate: “Last night, after sex, I was lying awake in bed/ With visions of sugar-plums dancing around my head.” There’s also an extended instrumental refrain with a few horns thrown in that should make you feel pretty good after you’ve enjoyed a few Christmas spirits. So the track is “Xmas Song” by Gold-Bears, from their album Are You Falling in Love?, out on what is apparently this blog’s pet label, Slumberland Records.

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Christmas Music Questions

Hey guys and gal,

In the next day or two I’ll get around to putting up my year end music post but I thought I’d take a minute now to talk about three of my favorite Christmas songs and ask you all to share some of yours. I know Christmas music often sends people into paroxysms of rage or delight but I’m mostly indifferent to a lot of it. The three songs below, however, are a notable exception.

 

“Father Christmas” by The Kinks

http://youtu.be/CjaPXihbORk

Quick, name a shitty Kinks song. That was a test–if you said anything at all, kill yourself. “Father Christmas” is no exception to their series of solid gold hits. Recorded in 1977, the song features Dave Davies doing his best Johnny Ramone impression while Ray Davies howls a sad/funny (which is THE BEST combination) story about robbing Santa Claus for cash instead of toys. The lyrics are unabashedly anti-commercial, righteously liberal, and feature the typical Davies wit. A nice, bitter antidote to the more saccharine fare of the season.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey

My family makes fun of me because one Christmas, under the influence of holiday cheer and almost a fifth of Wild Turkey, I played this song roughly thirty times during our Christmas Eve celebrations. I do have a soft spot for Christmas songs about being separated from loved ones (cf. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and that really stupid one Aaron Neville covers that I think the Eagles wrote) so Mariah Carey’s ode to her absent lover was pretty much guaranteed to appeal to me. Beyond the lyrics, though, the song’s built like a brick outhouse. With thudding, meet-thy-maker, Motown-on-Rip Fuel-drums and a backing chorus of fallen Christmas angels, Carey’s voice soars through her octaves pleading her erstwhile lover to come home. By the time the song reaches the bridge, you can practically hear the blood starting to trickle from her nose. Never before has unhinged, psychotic loneliness sounded so fucking amazing. Nick Cannon, get home to momma!

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues

I spend a post-college year living in New York, wildly miserable and frequently as drunk. That December, I found myself in a bar in Queens with a friend. The two of us, lonely at spending the holiday apart from our families, were seeking to rid the world of alcohol by drinking all of it and this song happened to come on the jukebox. We drunkenly belted out the chorus and stumbled through the verses while the rest of the bar tried to ignore our terribleness. It was the happiest moment of my entire time in New York due both to the company and the song. Though it’s ostensibly a Christmas song, it’s one of the best musical descriptions of the intense loneliness that being in the city engenders in a person I’ve ever heard. I find a lot of the Pogues work tiring because Shane MacGowan’s lovable drunkard delivery wears a little thin for my taste but it works charmingly on this song, largely due to the presence of Kristy MacColl. Like the above songs, it’s also a combination of moods with the darkness of the lyrics contrasting perfectly with the lilting Irish rock that the band cranks out. Play this in any bar during December to start a sing-along.

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play this list

To borrow a Tig Notaro joke, I’m already reminiscing about exactly one second ago …

This is a snapshot of music I liked in 2011.

1. “Beachy Head” – Veronica Falls 2. “Corinne” – Metronomy 3. “Sadness Is A Blessing (Gold Panda Remix)” – Lykke Li 4. “Gene Ciampi” – Twin Sister 5. “Fog Emotion” – Vetiver 6. “Lose It” – Austra 7. “Locked” – Four Tet 8. “Baby Missiles” – The War On Drugs 9. “Hoop of Love” – Dominant Legs 10. “Today Is Our Life” – Memory Tapes 11. “Focus Energy” – Seams 12. “Don’t Make Plans” – Ducktails 13. “Imagine Pt. 3” – Smith Westerns.

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