Julianna Barwick, The Magic Place
 PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
 Real Estate, Days
 Death Cab For Cutie, Codes & Keys
 Holcombe Waller, Into The Dark Unknown
 Devon Williams, Euphoria
 EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
 Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams
 Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
 R.E.M., Collapse Into Now
More than usual, there seemed to be a lot of personal stuff to attend to during the process of sorting through the year’s albums and choosing the most important ten. I hope the outcome isn’t too self-indulgent (if that’s a quality that ranking the art of others can even be said to have). But I have to wonder… Does my preference of The Magic Place to Let England Shake say something about my beliefs concerning the usefulness of language? Do Bradford Cox and Patrick Wolf represent the two sides of my personality, waiting for a wealth of experience to validate one and banish the other? Did Real Estate definitively capture the way we inhabit neighborhoods in 2011, or does it just seem that way because I moved to a new town the same week their album arrived?
And again, there was R.E.M. to remind me where I am and what I’m doing, but they provide that service for so much of the world’s population that to continue loving them indicates a hope for humanity’s future, not just my own, right? It was hard to be too shaken up over their departure this year, since I hear their influence more abundantly than ever. They’re all over my top ten, but especially in Julianna Barwick’s intimate, wordless transmutations of the kinds of melodies they unearthed in the American South, and in the timid, wise murmur of their de facto heirs Real Estate. The first song on Days is called “Easy,” and it’s appropriate, but I don’t understand why no one else has remarked an equal sense of uneasiness in Real Estate’s music, a feeling that their lifestyle, careless or not, has no hope of extending as indefinitely into the future as R.E.M.’s once did (sample lyric: “If it takes all summer long / just to write one simple song / there’s too much to focus on / clearly that is something wrong”). My greatest worry is not that R.E.M. is gone but that their replacements might get crushed by evil forces before their three decades are up.
Anyway, back to the personal. To counteract a top ten as memoir, and to “spread the wealth,” I left Patrick Wolf’s Lupercalia off the final list (it’s already quite clear he’s the man in my life, musically speaking), and hereby bestow it the secondhand autobiography award, so closely did it echo my own feelings about life and love this year. There’s no story here, move along… that was the general reaction to Lupercalia, and indeed, if Victorian literature tells us anything it’s that marriage always marks the end of a story. But Wolf’s belief in true love—and not just as an excuse for something else or as dumb reassurance against cosmic loneliness—is what I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life, even if it’s only slightly less naïve than my own belief. And yet… Is music more meaningful when it offers a glimpse of something we want but don’t have, or shares our sense of destitution? Because I already have everything Lupercalia has to give, in a manner of speaking.
Onward to the top ten:
I was tempted to offer this as the perfect antidote to instant gratification, a dive back into the warm, timeless waters of memory, but even accepting that “The Magic Place” is a tree from Barwick’s childhood, that’s a false premise: no album this year excited me more with the immediacy of its melodic progression.
A bit like late 50s/early 60s Bergman: white sky, gray to black earth, searingly plain and yet open to endless interpretation. Also, shockingly fun… “Nothing!”
Stereolab became perhaps my favorite band this year. Death Cab For Cutie aren’t quite Stereolab, but they took that band’s name as an aesthetic principle and created the year’s foremost experience in total sound. Even the words are sound for sound’s sake, taking the lyrical strategy of Pet Sounds and grafting it onto the lyrical strategy of Dylan or Malkmus. Which would explain the emotional trembles in an album so unwaveringly cool.
Sometimes it seems like amazing singers are cheating, tricking us into feeling something by nothing more than the naked emotion or simulation thereof they wear on their voices. But Holcombe Waller earns every word he utters, or, I should say, his lyrics earn their preternaturally dramatic articulation.
The cassette version, I should specify, though I doubt the Slumberland version really gains or loses anything by re-ordering side B and swapping “Don’t Be Fooled” for “Right Direction.” But I must so specify to allow a metaphor: here’s pop music so saturated (with color, emotion, bleeding strings, crying vocals) that it threatens to flood your tape deck. Maybe that’s the persistent shimmer I hear.
Music this sincere and therefore unfashionable doesn’t usually end up so close to cool. The world hasn’t heard anything like this since Kristin Hersh got hit by a car and started hearing frequencies.
“Jail La La” was a thrilling single last year, but I never suspected how much of its power came from Dee Dee’s sly articulation of the words. She emerges from the noise on Only In Dreams and reveals herself as a great singer, as confident as Neko Case. But that’s not what I meant when I proposed this as a country album: note instead the degree of tragedy matched by an equal degree of toughness.
Not since Rimbaud wrote “I is Another” has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity. I read something along those lines somewhere recently, about Bob Dylan, I think in a book of Ellen Willis writings. No such anxiety on the part of Bill Callahan. For all the soul searching and shape shifting on Apocalypse, he’s not nearly as impatient to unlock the mysteries of identity as his listener is. This is the same man who dreamt “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” and seemed satisfied with the answers it provided.
Alternately mistaken as a career summary and a pre-planned swan song, Collapse Into Now is, as the title denotes, another gorgeous set of songs that adhere to their moment in time.
There were enough excellent albums this year to make any of them worth overlooking, but here are ten more great ones, and further miscellanea:
Atlas Sound, Parallax
Big Troubles, Romantic Comedy
Kate Bush, 50 Words For Snow
Crystal Stilts, In Love With Oblivion
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Tennis, Cape Dory
Wild Beasts, Smother
Patrick Wolf, Lupercalia
There’s a mixtape out there for everyone, presumably, and I spent part of December listening to some of the year’s most acclaimed hip hop releases. Danny Brown, with his beautifully mannered (or unmannered?) voice and the necessity of its constant exercise to mitigate total entrapment and despair, with his subversions and ironies (his critique of radio songs is funny and spot-on without offering itself as a viable alternative, but it’s so ear-itching that it accidentally becomes one; elsewhere, just when we’re expecting him to brag, he finds no glory in the prospect of dying like a rock star, or even much interest in partying like one), interested me most. I overcame most of my misgivings about XXX by invoking the storyteller theory of hip hop, wherein the rapper’s primary responsibility is to create a plausible first-person narrator, but the middle section of the album, where Brown gets so caught up in penis accommodation imagery that his voice loses a lot of its character, is a tough sit no matter how you look at it. Still, XXX is a model album in terms of its careful, sometimes opaque construction.
…you might be asking right about now. I guess they’re just a band so outsized that no human can give himself entirely to their discography. I’m already overextending my meager soul by loving absolutely their previous two albums. But Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a lot of fun.
So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me?
--Fleet Foxes, "Montezuma"
I remember thinking that a couple years ago.
I was blissfully unaware of music, because I heard it so much.
--Zac, on childhood