Yin yang of sorts
Favorite albums, 2012
 Frida Hyvönen – To The Soul
 Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
 Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
 Frankie Rose – Interstellar
 Ken Stringfellow – Danzig in the Moonlight
 Chromatics – Kill For Love
 Grimes – Visions
 Julia Holter – Ekstasis
 Himanshu – Nehru Jackets
 Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
The mystery of life and death; radical honesty.
1. “Earthling, earthling, when you die part of you goes like the fruit on the ground. Part of you live on through memory or blood but what happens to the soul?” One of the greatest pop songwriters since her countrymen Andersson and Ulvaeus, but less indebted to a disco beat.
2. “I am done with it.” The album that scared me most, so beautiful I could sometimes hardly bear to listen to it, as if to look away was to preserve it.
3. “I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death.” Someone my age is thinking about his own, but not in any way that’s tragic, self-fulfilling, depressed, or anything. Instead he’s imaginative, expansive when he holds his dream of death and wonders how he’ll perceive himself at the moment it finally already comes. “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?”
Only in music and animation do humans create the laws of physics. Behold a gleaming, weightless city, one that never had to be built, that never crushed anyone, as perfect as a drawing of itself. How else to explain such a serene album being made in Brooklyn? And playing so well in Albuquerque?
How is this possible? Except for maybe Frosting on the Beater, a Posies album is never perfect, trading consistency of inspiration for consistency of sound, but every time one of these guys makes a solo album, they trade back and produce a masterpiece. Danzig is Stringfellow’s third great solo venture, even more stylistically varied than 2004’s Soft Commands, but shot through with a beautiful somberness that holds it together.
If x-, y-, and z-axis correspond to time, “the album,” and solitude, then the coordinates of Kill For Love are (0,0,0). It pushes me back to important primordial experiences of committed music listening, in a way I never expected might happen again. I’m lying in a bed, alone in a dark room, with headphones on. The only time I know is the album’s time, and there’s no other version of time I’d rather surrender to. Zen Arcade exists near these coordinates.
Triumph of the non-musician. She’s probably worked out a solution by now, but I read a while back about Grimes’ GarageBand origins, and the difficulty she had in replicating live songs that had been built in private. I’m happy to add her to the small list of people who, by painstaking, backwards, impractical means, can produce something so accomplished. There’s a type of creative process that can’t be looked at until its work is complete.
7b. Most should never mean best, but that Visions had the most melody of any album this year is some major part of its achievement, I think, and the major part of its fun.
Triumph of the musician.
a. I ignored the law of comparisons (in which two things don’t merit comparison just because they both exist) when I pulled Nehru Jackets and Ekstasis together into a malformed idea about space, simply because they were the two albums at the forefront of my mind at one point this summer. But I still think there was something there. Nowhere else this year but in Ekstasis and the best rap mixtapes did I encounter a sense of space that might be said to bear some relation to reality, with the artist surrendering part of his wide ambient world and allowing foreign parties, elements, humidity to infringe on something that’s usually supposed to be just between himself and the listener. The year’s two best live albums.
b. It starts with a bad remembrance of Paula Cole, but the density of inspiration across 25 tracks obscures and eventually elevates any lesser moments. Among the great moments are Ravi Shankar talking about the elixir of life, followed by a song about drugs, and, per the juxtaposition, ambivalence or guilt?; the rattling intensity that keeps increasing from “Swate” through “NYC Cops” to “You Have to Ride the Wave,” the latter featuring one of Danny Brown’s greatest entrances. Also, Heems says more great things, on average, than anyone else in music today, than “Gold Soundz,” maybe. “If you wear a turban you can’t be a cop, but you can shoot one.”
c. I don’t often look to Sasha Frere-Jones for guidance in my listening, but he said something about Nehru Jackets earlier this year that I think qualifies as important criticism. It was simple enough, when he called the album angrier even than Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, but the statement had a way of cutting through the fun confusion I always feel when trying to parse Heems’ sense of humor, grounding the music in an unambiguous emotion.
An album about feelings of futility and frustration that’s also an endorsement of hard work. Fuck anyone who takes anything for granted: Idler Wheel’s best qualities are also signs that it could so easily never have been made. But it was made, and then, we imagine, the feelings returned and the sense of relief was small and quick, but at least we got a small, quiet classic out of seven years’ worth of all that shit that builds up that either you have to tell, or do nothing.
almost but not quite
Beach House – Bloom
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Wild Nothing – Nocturne
almost “almost but not quite” but not quite
Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man a
Best Coast – The Only Place b
Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors *
Big K.R.I.T. – Live from the Underground *
Death Grips – NO LOVE DEEP WEB c
El Perro Del Mar – Pale Fire
Kishi Bashi – 151a *
Le1f – Dark York
Lightships – Electric Cables
Lower Dens – Nootropics
Sinéad O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
Orbital – Wonky
Ty Segall and White Fence – Hair *
The Shins – Port of Morrow
Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game
a Please don’t suppose that my not-quite-love for Haunted Man devalues my love for Two Suns, which is still absolute. It was the same thing last year with M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which was greeted by many as a purer expression of… something, as if the different features of Saturdays = Youth had suddenly been revealed as mere noise and distraction. I love the impurities of Saturdays and Suns, because they sound like essences.
b The album I most feel the need to defend, because however good or bad her lyrics, however intentional or not, who can’t see that they add up to such a generous portrait of a personality type? Nothing on Only Place is as good as the title track, but it’s enough for me that one of the year’s greatest, easiest songs is followed by ten admissions that nature is no absolute buffer to your mental health, not when your favorite pastime is staring into space and not seeing the mountains for the blurred middle distance. And what other songwriter besides Cosentino dares to imagine her own imminent irrelevance and poverty?
c Nothing’s very scary in the age of the Internet, because nothing has a physical reality, so I hope I can be forgiven for finding the Death Grips experience more purely entertaining than abrasive. NO LOVE puts me in the nicest of headspaces, in keeping with the way rap music has almost totally replaced my need for wordless electronic music. But I want to let it shake me, because only then does the real learning begin, right?
* Among my recent listening (while on break in Montana) are some late additions to the year’s surplus of very good albums: Hair is a crazy weird rock ‘n’ roll album just when I needed it most (see below); Vicious Lies is as surprising and exciting as you allow it to be; Live from the Underground is the new standard for a successful major label debut, so well does it consolidate the strength of previous mixtapes; and 151a is another musician’s triumph, this one more in the manner of Owen Pallett. I’m tempted to pillage these four records for yet another addendum to last week’s post on the year’s best songs, but I’ll restrain myself and note only that K.R.I.T.’s stunning “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” might’ve been on Macromix 12. He always brings it home in the final songs.
(Speaking of, if you want a physical copy of Macromix 12, just comment here within the next three days and I’ll mail you a cassette. It’s true.)
Rock ‘n’ roll, if you want to call it something so general, has been my favorite music for most of my life, which you probably won’t believe after glancing at the lists above. I had a hard time finding much of it I even wanted to hear this year, but I’m hoping this was an anomaly.
Past In earlier years, the little new music I cared about was usually made by still-active 80s punk veterans and four- or five-piece British imports. That kind of thing has been harder than ever to find this year. In the former group, Lee Ranaldo’s album was quite good, and Bob Mould’s very exciting but by far the least interesting of his nine solo albums, unless you judge it only on its attack, which maybe I ought to have done. In the latter group, Maxïmo Park still hit pretty hard, weirdly and suddenly peerless for a band that’s still somewhat new.
Present The rock albums I liked best this year (Chromatics, Lower Dens) were rock albums only in theory, I guess. I enjoyed both of Neil Young’s new records with Crazy Horse, if only because these guys have given up on the idea (not that they’ve ever held it in any kind of vain way) that their music makes any difference to anyone but themselves, which is where the important letting go really begins.
Future I heard a little or a lot by all of the newer rock bands that got the most attention this year, most arriving via hardcore or psychedelic impulses: The Men, Screaming Females, Ceremony, Royal Headache, Tame Impala, Ty Segall, Cloud Nothings, Japandroids. I tolerate to really enjoy all of these people, but none have yet secured a vested interest, with the possible exception of Ty Segall, whose album with White Fence, Hair, is gaining some traction. It’s only when we come to Japandroids that I start to grow a little bit exasperated with the state of things. I just don’t get it: Rap music still gives us all the words, all the feelings, all the sounds its artists know. Japandroids give us one word, one feeling, one sound – alive – and then sell it as a kind of generosity. But isn’t this the ultimate form of stinginess? Perhaps my real problem is with those people who continue to compare Japandroids to Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, bands that, you know, wrote great songs documenting a wide range of human experience and feeling. Every time I listen to Japandroids I remember that they have no interest in doing anything like that, which is not their fault, of course, because like anything else they are what they are. But I was never one to be taken by a high that has no knowledge of a low, and I can't help but question the desperate energy of people who are.
On a related note, I’ve seen the Pitchfork review of a reissue of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness held up as an example of excellent music criticism (perhaps ironically), but I don’t remember reading anything more aggravating this year. Who are these teenagers, and why can’t they feel anything that isn’t written in bold? I remember being able to interpret subtlety when I was younger, and loving it.
Methods of listening
A lot of commentators, in wrapping up the year in music, have also offered their insights about how we listen to music in 2012. As a person without Internet (sort of like a person with disability) who has nonetheless listened to a wide variety of new music this year, I’ve found these accounts to describe an alien way of living (example). So I thought I’d provide a brief overview of how I heard new music in 2012, with horribly inaccurate and misleading percentages.
60% – Music magazines (Big Takeover, Under the Radar, SPIN R.I.P., Magnet)
40% – Pitchfork.com items tagged “new releases”
Some acts of discovery were motivated online, but not many fully took place there.
33% – CDs, on the stereo or in the van – Still the cheapest and most convenient way of hearing new music, due to circumstances. Often purchased at a discount or checked out from the library.
33% – iTunes – For example, I’ll download free rap mixtapes and then listen to them upon returning home.
33% – iPod – On the walk to and from work, or to and from the bus stop. I’m back at the edge of downtown Albuquerque anytime I hear Frankie Rose, on Copper near San Mateo anytime I hear Kendrick Lamar.
1% – Other – Concerts (too few). Friends’ music. Crap that imposes itself outside the home. Also, earlier in the year, I joined Spotify so I could hear Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game and Neil Young’s Americana, then ceased using my account when I found both albums at the library.
90% – The Cool TV – An unaccountably extant music video platform available in a number of large markets.
10% – Other TV – But I missed Frank Ocean on Fallon, and haven’t sought it out since, because my imagination of it is no doubt better than a video viewed seconds at a time on my crappy computer, or even if it played more smoothly than that, my dread of that kind of experience is a pretty major psychic determent.
0% – Internet videos
A friend recently confessed to his love of watching older movies on VHS, because it gives him a better sense of how old they are. I bought a lot of new CDs this year, most of which are currently collecting dust upon a worn copy of a box set that Rolling Stone once called the cornerstone of any music collection. Can a stone exist in a cloud, and if so, what keeps it afloat? Does it age in any meaningful way?
There’s no intended value judgment in any of this. I just wanted to point out another way that the past is not even past, because it will always persist into and embarrass a present that supposedly has no use for it. Long live the CD.