Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections On The State Of Music In 2011

or Why I Cannot Learn To Stop Worrying and Love Spotify

"It takes effort and most things, the more it hurts, the more it means…"
Frank Chimero commenting on The Tree Of Life

As true rock journalism has been replaced by blog/internet culture (which explains the ascendancy of the shoddy, short-sighted, pot-shot criticism of Pitchfork and their ilk) that seems to exist without correlation to rock history or lineage, it is as if many of the current rock “journalists” are so consumed with the post-modern tendency to simply link references rather than analyze with intelligence. It seems they cannot, or will not invest in the process of thoughtfully considering the work they are attempting to criticize beyond the most superficial of connective elements (again I’m looking at you Pitchfork).

Perhaps this tendency to connect rather than analyze is due in part to the entire catalogue of recorded music literally becoming available at your fingertips. This unprecedented access brings with it a wholly modern problem – access without filter; without a way to navigate this bottomless pit of history the rock journalist of today can merely attempt to connect like-objects in an attempt to plot a course in the wake of the collapse of the music industry. This is why I cannot learn to stop worrying and love Spotify—the discrepancy between access and education, breakneck opportunity and analytic understanding is staggering.

Yes, it is a dream to be able to access anything in the realm of music, but what are we losing? Unfettered musical access at the speed of light often causes surface dismissal, on-to-the-next-thing, shallow interaction (the topic of recent book TheShallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains). Rock criticism has now become similar to Tumblr, but for music—a rapid succession of images that “look” significant or rather become symbols for significance rather than doors to deeper, more meaningful interaction. In short, many members of youthful audiences can discern what significance “looks like”, but cannot elucidate why those images/peoples/texts/musics are actually significant. Imagine if you applied this method of criticism to other forms of art: if art history courses were only constructed as Tumblr-style image sequences without discourse and crucial support/contextual information; that the annals of film were only a series of YouTube clips; that the vast history of literature were only brief sentence summaries or worse, context-free quotations (this already is the only way that most young people interact with the classics—through Tumblr-loaded quotes or Disney-fied movie versions).

This lack of context positions all works of art to be of equal value as seen through the lens of an endless succession of quickly viewed/listened to works; the truly substantial and the commonly mediocre become indiscernible in the anonymous rush of material hissing past at hurried speeds. We are at the top of the ladder in our ability to access, but without means of navigation, we are kicking out the rungs beneath us. This can only end in a culture of art that is repetitive, unoriginal, and worst of all, cliché.

It is this superficial contact that I am attempting to make a plea against—in every area of art, be it literature, painting, film, design, or music. If venues like Spotify or Rdio are used in the right way—as modern conduits to connect us to the art we listen to, to contemplate, to investigate, to discuss—then they are certainly a positive. This screed may come across as the ranting of an old-timer, claiming that things were better “back then”. To be clear, I am no luddite; I am an avid user of Twitter, Tumblr, Blogger, etc. But I fear that for those listeners who are at the outset of their formative listening experiences and critical listening development will not gain the ability to analyze, but rather to only be able to at best connect-the-dots, and at worst—never develop the ability to “listen” at all. 

SIDENOTE: I just want to publicly request that David Bowie shake free of his early retirement and get back into the ring this year. This is my biggest hope for the new year—Bowie, come back—we need you now more than ever.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2011 – Extended Selections

So every year I make additional selections by offering several awards outside of the "official" ballot. Here they are, my extended selections.

Holocene – Bon Iver
Listened to this song sitting in the window overlooking Old Town Saginaw when I got back from the hospital the morning my brother died. Seared into my soul forever.

Walk – Foo Fighters
Runners Up: Shake It Off – Florence + The Machine, Midnight City – M83, Discoverer – REM, Lonely Boy – The Black Keys, The Death of You & Me – Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The World Is Yours – Glasvegas

SONGS OF THE YEAR (30 great songs, in no particular order)
We Are Augustines – Headlong Into The Abyss
Chelsea Wolfe­­ – Tracks (Tall Bodies)
Papercuts – Charades
Glasvegas – Whatever Hurts You Through The Night
The Horrible Crowes – Sugar
M83 – Steve McQueen
Zola Jesus – Collapse
The Black Keys – Little Black Submarines
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds – (Stranded On) The Wrong Beach
Dirty Beaches – Speedway King
The Twilight Singers – The Beginning of the End
Girls – Vomit
M83 – Wait
Foo Fighters – I Should Have Known
Florence + The Machine – Only For Tonight
Chelsea Wolfe – Movie Screen
The Horrors – Changing Rain
Wild Flag – Romance
Glasvegas – The World Is Yours
I Break Horses – Hearts
We Are Augustines – Chapel Song
The Horrible Crowes – Behold The Hurricane
Wolf Gang – Lions In Cages
M83 – Reunion
Zola Jesus – Lick The Palm Of The Burning Hand
The Horrors – Oceans Burning
PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose
Arctic Monkeys – She’s Thunderstorms
REM – Discoverer
Florence + The Machine – No Light, No Light

Badlands, Dirty Beaches
Redundant to bring this up again, but it really is fantastic. Check it out.

Lonely Boy, The Black Keys
In a weak year for the dying artistic genre known as the music video, this one was perfect.

Beady Eye—Different Gear, Still Speeding.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, is a bigger Liam Gallagher fan on this planet than I am. And that’s not to say that that this album is bad—it’s just sort of…meh. I really like Beatles & Stones and The Morning Son but otherwise it’s kind of forgettable.
RUNNER UP: Glasvegas, ///Euphoria Heartbreak\\\ Repeat all of the above commentary for Beady Eye but insert the word Glasvegas.

The breakup of REM, obviously.

Back & Forth: Foo Fighters
This Foo Fighters/Dave Grohl/Nirvana doc does everything a great rock film should do—
RUNNER UP: From The Sky Down: The Making of Achtung Baby is also pretty great, but I wanted more.
SIDE NOTE: I also really liked Stones In Exile about the making of Exile On Mainstreet and Lemmy, concerning the handsome and debonair Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. 

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

Ok, so it's really fifteen. But it was a really strong year so I went with more than ten.

15. Wild Flag—Wild Flag
The sound is the blood between me and you

Rock and roll is alive and well and living in the hearts of these four women. Killer top to bottom.

14. The Black Keys – El Camino
But everybody knows / That a broken heart is blind

Loving it, but since it just came out I haven’t been able to spend the kind of time with it that I need to.

13. The Twilight Singers—Dynamite Steps
All come alive in the present tense

The disappointment was in the buildup; the promise of Dynamite Steps was too great, as word of a new Twilight Singers album, following one of the best albums of the past decade—Powder Burns—would also feature Gutter Twin Mark Lanegan as well as erstwhile genius (and personal guitar-god) Nick McCabe of the Verve? The lure proved too much. Instead of an epoch-defining work, Greg Dulli and Co. return with another excellent album of noir rock. 

It’s tough to call this a disappointment, as it truly does have its moments (like the Song of the Year contender The Beginning of the End), but considering the buildup, it was hard not to feel a bit letdown. Again, that isn’t to say I don’t love this album, because I certainly do.

12. We Are Augustines—Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Well call the police, go ahead call your shrink / Call whoever you want but I won't stop the car

I love albums that have a good story behind them, and this one is a doozy. From Paste Magazine’s review:

Jim, the brother of lead singer and songwriter Billy McCarthy, had a very troubled past. Since high school, he lived in homeless shelters and on the streets of California after succumbing to excessive substance abuse. He was also committed to psychiatric hospitals on multiple occasions.

Jim eventually used a knife to attack a worker in a shelter where he was living. He then found himself in prison and diagnosed as a schizophrenic, unfit to stand trial and too dangerous to stay with the general public…For four years, Jim remained in solitary confinement, his only escapes being small stints at more psychiatric hospitals…While staying at one, he overheard he’d again be relegated to solitary confinement…He panicked…Then hanged himself.

Their mother, also a schizophrenic and addict, came to a similar demise. Lying on a cot in a homeless shelter, she overdosed on sleeping pills and cocaine…Next to her bed, she had scribbled two things on the back of a business card from a local mortuary: her children’s names…Billy, Jim and their sister never knew their father.

The funny thing about this album, one sprung from so much darkness, is that is sounds mostly triumphant. Though it does trail off a bit, a more honest group of songs you will not find this year.

11. Dirty Beaches—Badlands
Speedway / It's taking over me

Badlands sounds like it was unearthed from beneath the garbage barrels behind CBGB’s, the mutant offspring of a late night jam session between Suicide, The Cramps, and Elvis singing lyrics written by Charles Starkweather in an alley somewhere in my dreams. Very, very hard to leave this out of my top ten.

SIDE NOTE: This is the best album cover of the year, by far. To fully experience the album as it was intended, pick it up on vinyl like I did. Pressed on white wax, the grime sounds like a demented symphony, and the noir-ish photography provides ample evidence for the need to continue producing tangible packaging.

10. Bon Iver—Bon Iver
…and at once I knew I was not magnificent

Another tenderly brilliant album from Justin Vernon, Wisconsin’s most famous cabin dweller. The blatant Peter Gabriel-ism is a bit concerning to most, but since I actually like Peter Gabriel (and am not afraid to admit it) I am OK with it. 

Of anyone on this list, I think his next album will have the highest stakes (so to speak) of his career. 

09. The Horrors—Skying
The moment that you want is coming / If you give it time

Another set of gorgeous, post-punk warbles. The law of diminishing returns does govern this follow-up to my 2009 Album of theYear, Primary Colours, but it is still a strong batch of high quality, billowy, psych.

08. Chelsea Wolfe—Apokalypsis
We could be two straight lines in a crooked world…

Chelsea Wolfe snuck onto the musical landscape by releasing her debut album The Grime and The Glow in the final week of 2010. I discovered that album in late spring, and spent a considerable portion of the summer of 2011 playing Halfsleeper on repeat late into the night. Her follow up—Apokalypsis—was released in September and is an absolutely white-nuckle, horror movie scary collection of feral doomfolk. In a good way. 

This album has an atmosphere that is totally exclusive to anything else put on wax this year. Listening, you can almost smell the smoky haze of incense burning at some ancient, biblical rite taking place, being presided over by a feral priestess that may or may not be PJ Harvey. It kind of reminds me of the atmosphere created on the title track to the first Black Sabbath album, if that helps describe the late night, bizarre environment constructed here. 

I found myself in the month of December basically playing Tracks (TallBodies) on repeat, hypnotized by it's repetitive spell.

SIDE NOTE: Try as I might, I could not find this on CD or (extremely) limited LP, as it was mostly a digital only release. A sign of the times I guess.

07. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Self-Titled
Build a little fire where it’s cold…

This is the best album of the year while you are listening to it. Nothing makes you feel this good—so good that it feels like a collection of Be Here Now B-sides, which is the ultimate compliment I can give it. I ask you to listen to this record, and take a moment to appreciate the level of traditional English-with-a-capital-E songwriting here, as nobody else does this anymore. 

A dying art to be sure.

06. Foo Fighters—Wasting Light
I never wanna die / I never wanna die / I'm on my knees / I never wanna die…

Are Foo Fighters the last straight-up rock and roll band in the mainstream left in America? I must admit that the placement of this album was significantly influenced by repeated viewings of the extraordinary documentary Back & Forth. The album, like the documentary that chronicled its creation, is a look back in order to forge a new path forward. Many of the best songs here—Dear Rosemary, I Should Have Known, Bridge Burning, Miss The Misery, Arlandria, and the spectacular Walk—all deal with the subject of reflecting on past losses, past mistakes, past failures as a way to appreciate what you have now, today, in the present. A song like I Should Have Known is given incredible gravity not only by the subject matter—not being able to stop someone you care for from self-destruction, one of which is explicitly Kurt Cobain—but through the inclusion of Krist Novoselic (performing for the first time with Grohl post-Nirvana) and Pat Smear (now back in the fold as a full time member) a resonance that supersedes the Foo Fighters as a musical entity. 

Few albums are as life-affirming as this set from Grohl’s Army, and that alone set Wasting Light apart from most of the pack this year.

05. Florence + The Machine—Ceremonials
And would you leave me / If I told you what I've become?

Blown away by the power of her talent. Lyrically, musically, and vocally this album is phenomenal – I was totally caught off guard by Ceremonials. Superb in every category. Calling her a force of nature is not mere hyperbole, she seems to exert powerful sway over the elements. 

04. M83—Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I woke up stronger than ever…

Epic in the best sense of the world, this sprawling shoegaze/technopop extravaganza should come with a map. Huge in sound and scope, this album steps forward from 2009’s John Hughes inspired masterpiece Saturdays=Youth. Should M83 mainman Anthony Gonzalez have decided to prune this back to a single disc, it certainly would have fought for Album of the Year. But forget about all that, just take it as it is – a bittersweet mix of upbeat heartfelt symphonies dedicated to the loss of innocence and youth. 

Beautifully confidant.

SIDENOTE: If Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was released when I was 22, it would have been the soundtrack to my life. Every song sounds like a movie. Also, I highly recommend seeing them live. They are absolutely massive live.

03. The Horrible Crowes—Elsie
If you should go there before I do / God's gonna trouble the water

This side-project from Brian Fallon (who may be my favorite young songwriter in America) reaches into areas of lyricism undiscovered in his day job as Gaslight Anthem’s director and guiding force. Elsie seemed to get better and better with each and every listen I gave it. An album about loss, in it's many forms. 

SIDE NOTE: You know when you lose your objectivity about quality because you feel so close to a work? This album has served as my companion through the long hours of grief in the wake of my brother’s death last August. I spent every available minute driving the backstreets of South Carolina in September and October listening to this album and I will always have a hard time listening to it.

02. Zola Jesus—Conatus
Cause it hurts, yes it hurts to let you in…

An operatic goth/synth/dance/dreampop tour de force. The Goth Queen of Madison, WI takes on a broad range of subjects and moods here; fitting for an album whose title—Conatus—is latin for moving forward. Conatus is a major leap ahead in terms of songwriting, production, and instrumentalism from her brilliant twin 2010 EP’s Stridullum and Valusia. The best compliment that I can give this is to say that it is a complete work, a true album in the sense that each song is sequenced with precision, and work as links to a whole. 

Heroic, picturesque, heart-wrenching, strong.

01. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake
Goddamn Europeans! / Take me back to beautiful England…

Not her first reinvention (my favorite would be the now over 10 years old, still phenomenal Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea) but certainly the most convincing and total, Let England Shake is a brilliant treatise on post-WWI Britain. It is of the utmost importance that artists continue to challenge their audience with complex, confrontational, or uncomfortable material and Harvey has found inventive and distinctive ways to do this since the early 90’s. Even in a very, very strong year for female artists, Harvey continues to be in a class unto herself.

SIDE NOTE: I find the current pre-eminence of PJ Harvey as an influence on contemporary, female based "rock" to be truly fascinating, as it is difficult—nearly impossible—to imagine much of the significant female work at present without her influence. A brief look at my Top Ten Albums of 2011 exemplifies this – Chelsea Wolfe, Florence + The Machine, Zola Jesus, and countless others bear her distinctive mark. It’s as if her particular brand of intelligent, literary, visceral rock and roll has aged with such formidable significance and dignity that what was once periphery has now become central to the post millennial, post collapse-of-the-music-industry, post rock-as-cultural-force, post rock-is-dead musical landscape (this same observation may also be applied to the work of Nick Cave). I am not certain why this is, but I think it is a worthwhile discussion to cultivate.

Top Albums of 2011 – 25 To 15

OK folks, it's that time again. Time for the Madison Institute of Musicologists to convene, place their ballots, and select their Top Ten Albums of 2011. As usual, I will be offering an extended version of the ballot. As this was an especially strong and competitive year, I have decided to include a full list of the Top Twenty-Five Albums of 2011.

More to come. So without further ado, here we go:

25. Diego Garcia—Laura

24. The War On Drugs—Slave Ambient

23. Papercuts—Fading Parade

22. The Kills—Blood Pressures

21. The Raveonettes—Raven In The Grave

20. Radiohead—King of Limbs

19. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart—Belong

18. Chapel Club—Palace

17. Girls—Father, Son, Holy Ghost

16. Glasvegas—///Euphoria Heartbreak\\\