The fifth of ten favorite 2011 albums — The Mountain Goats’ ‘All Eternals Deck’

The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck

And yes, for all my love of sonic overload and obscurity, a dude with an acoustic guitar who’s known for his lyrics sure can work for me. Brilliantly.

It’s kinda funny, I don’t remember exactly how I learned about the Mountain Goats almost twenty years back but when I came to UC Irvine in the fall of 1992 it was almost as if I had stumbled into an outlier of Shrimper and the Inland Empire without really putting the pieces together. Franklin Bruno’s Nothing Painted Blue released “Swivelchair” around that time, Peter Hughes had been doing a radio show at KUCI up until fairly recently, I saw the two of them play at the campus pub at separate occasions, then there was the Big Breakfast though I can’t remember if that was a bit later…there was all this stuff going on, while I was scrounging more shoegazey stuff and techno and wondering what exactly Suede sounded like. Then my friend Eric J. Lawrence’s band Peoplemover covered “Sendero Cuminoso Verdado” in concert and gave me a tape and I was all “Wait, who is this guy again? And why do I keep hearing about him?”

So twenty years on and there’s Peter Hughes on Letterman, Jon Wurster on drums and John Darnielle himself singing about heat lamps and snakes and a hundred thousand cuckoo clocks earlier this year and I’m all smiling at how great it sounds, how warm and immediate, actually anthemic without being an overblown anthem or feeling skullcrushingly stupid. And over all that reach of time I’ve slowly but surely gone “Yeah, this guy’s got something here,” and seen him for the first time at the Terrastock 2 festival in San Francisco in 1998, just himself and his guitar and a packed crowd, and I end up reviewing the rarities compilations for the All Music Guide and and and. I could go on, I’ll spare you. Those who know, know (and I’m not even a hyperfan compared to some, it’s more like when I first read his Last Plane to Jakarta work when it was still a fanzine and thought, “Good god, and the guy can not only write lyrics but brilliant criticism too!”).

I acknowledge backstory to dispose of it — one reason why I like the Mountain Goats and certain other bands are how they make their most recent work the thing I actually want to hear the most. Sure, there’s beloved older releases and all — I still can’t get over the fact that Tallahassee is on the verge of being ten years old, for instance — but this is about 2011, it’s about what was released now, and if an artist is releasing something now that you’re loving and playing into the ground as opposed to releasing something that you play once or twice and then go back to the older stuff, that right there is a sign.

It’s a little hard to try and talk about something by someone who is very articulate and clear about things in general, you feel like you can’t measure up to his or her own words about anything else. Pretty glad I never did an actual review of this album anywhere, that would have sucked. (I did do this brief interview, though, and that show they did was great.) What’s lovely about this album in particular is partially explained by that interview, the fact that something done via a variety of short sessions feels fresh and immediate as a result, that it also is sequenced like a motherfucker. Seriously, this is RIDICULOUSLY well-sequenced. He’s always had a good knack for that but I don’t know, maybe switching to Merge upped things a notch.

The attraction in the album’s sound lies in the illusion of unity, not merely in terms of order, but how everything appears to have only been that way. An excellent song or performance appears to have ‘always’ been that way, it can’t be any other way, say. For some people the Mountain Goats were always a boombox, an acoustic guitar and a singer first and foremost, maybe only. I understand that sentiment well enough, sure, and the fact that there was a limited edition cassette release that featured John D.’s demos for the album recorded just that way helped provide a compare/contrast moment and all. But you know, the ‘real’ version of the album isn’t that one to me, how could it be? More to the point, how could anyone not want that end result?

An excellent album leaves you almost forgetting what’s next because the song you’ve just finished hearing is so good you’re still riding it a bit and then the next one starts and you smack your head and go “Damn and how did I forget about this one?” Like the way that “The Autopsy Garland” and its sense of calm warning ends and then you slip into the groove of “Beautiful Gas Mask” and it’s like the best late seventies Dire Straits and Steely Dan recording quality and sense of performance transmogrified into John D.’s approach and I’m all “Well yeah, duh, of course.”

Snippets of lyrics slip through my brain as much as the music, constantly reinforcing each other or stepping forward then back. Backing male chorused vocals on “High Hawk Season,” elegant and strong, shivering strings on “Age of Kings” during the break, the brawling rush of “Estate Sale Sign,” memories and snapshot moments, singing in the concluding “Liza Forever Minelli” about how whoever mentions “Hotel California” next dies before the first line clears his lips, piano and strings on “Outer Scorpion Squadron” as the lyrics detail how to conjure up a ghost and it all becomes this cascade of a lot of moments that you either know you’ve been through or think you might have done or will do or might react the same way to but not with the quite rush of words. Then you find yourself embarassed that you would presume that kind of connection but everything about the album, like so many moments of the Mountain Goats beforehand, can’t help draw you, not in per se, but close. A voice in your ear, a feeling in your heart, a melody in your head.

All this and a song that turns Charles Bronson’s work ethic into a model for life, not everyone’s maybe, but that makes all those Chuck Norris jokes seem like the hollow humor it is. That and a keyboard part that completely lifts the song just perfectly, right at the moment it appears. Why explain further?

All Eternals Deck via Merge Records.


The fourth of ten favorite 2011 albums — Me of a Kind’s ‘You Are Here’

Me of a Kind, You are Here

What are friends for, after all?

Which sounds nepotistic, but let’s talk about that a little, as well as talking about being honest with friends, being lucky to have talented friends, the fine line that can exist when one talks about friends’ creative work in the capacity of a critic and so forth. Imagine if I were also a musician too, then it might be worse (or is that better?).

I met Jen Schwartz, the person behind pretty much every note and every recording step on the album aside from a couple of extra violin parts from a cousin of hers, earlier this year at the EMP Pop Conference at UCLA, courtesy of mutual friends, and we hit it off pretty quickly. We’re Cure and Smiths and especially Siouxsie obsessives, why wouldn’t we hit it off? I learned about how she’d drummed in Tribe 8 for many years and how she was working on a solo debut, which caught my attention by default. (I’m sometimes terrible at following up on news of people who work in bands — I almost don’t want to look at my Notes app in the iPhone — so I’m glad I did in this case. Didn’t hurt that we ended up in each other’s networks on Facebook and Twitter and so forth.)

While I’ve talked about this album in those locations and in discussion with friends and so forth, I’ve refrained from reviewing it formally anywhere out of conflict of interest, you could say. It’s because she was kind enough to ask for my help in PR for the release, which I gladly gave — on the flip side, it was a little hard for me to therefore pretend to be a removed critical voice when talking about it. By default I rather liked it, so there you go.

If you end up doing the work I do to any degree, at a certain point people — at least some of them — stop being abstract figures or people you can project your own thoughts on and become people just like you. It’s a demystification that’s always crucial to go through, otherwise you’ll never get out of that first rush phase from whenever you got into music — or any form of creative work or talent — when everything is a little heroic, a little alien, a little ‘could I ever be like that?’ And in the case of Me of a Kind, I knew the person first before I knew the work, so that made it even less of a mystery.

What makes You are Here compelling listening to my ears isn’t just that kind of personal connection, obviously, so let me delve into why I like the album on its own merits, as if I didn’t know Jen S. at all. Being the relative ages we are, I can’t say I’m surprised to find that her work mirrors a lot of my own musical reference points, besides the previously mentioned bands. PJ Harvey, for instance? Oh heck yes (and in fact, you should check out the just released cover of “This Mess We’re In” that Jen did with Bowie vet Earl Slick). So sure, to an extent — only an extent, but not ignorable — this is a kind of comfort listening, not upending the past and crackling in the present, more extending and refining the past into the present one wants it to be, whatever approach that might be.

But on a larger level, there’s also an attractive balance here, between sometimes intense, angry edge and reflective serenity, both musically and, importantly, lyrically. Here’s where the personal connection helps again — we spent almost two hours listening through the finished album as I interviewed her about each track, what went into it, her thoughts on the final results. So songs like “Forgive Me” and “I’m Not Going Home” have a little more grounding in my ears than they might otherwise if I didn’t know all that, but still work nonetheless on that level (after all, I heard the album a few times first before talking with her about it).

Combined with Jen S.’s elegant abilities on every instrument and clear grasp of how to record well and so forth, it’s not, I suppose, what one would expect of a drummer from Tribe 8 on the one hand, but then again, what is to be expected of any musician, or artist? If you let yourself be defined by one repeated note then one repeated note is all that anyone will see. I’ll have more to say about the joys of finding yourself in a different place than you were when you started elsewhere in this list but that can wait, just take it from me that the slow burn of drumming and strings and atmospheres on “The Rain” really could be a track from, say, Tinderbox or Peepshow era Banshees, and good thing too. Then there’s “Winter” and the combination of piano and singing and suffice to say that this is not a Tori Amos cover.

Turning back to the issue of friends and creativity, though — another friend, who’s been in a two person band for many years that’s gained some attention (I’ll spare her blushes) once asked me flat out, “Ned, why don’t you record anything yourself? Why aren’t you a musician?” As I answered her, it’s pretty easy: I’m impatient and lazy. Where I do take the time, or so I hope, to practice things like my writing and my cooking and even, on a more casual level, my photography, with music if I can’t get it to sound like the inspiring things I’ve heard over the years right away, or the music in my head in general, then I end up frustrated. And like I said, I’m lazy and impatient, and I am content to hear the work of others.

But understanding those pressures, just a little, of what musicians can and do go through — especially these days, where DIY is easier than ever but getting attention is even harder, and where theoretically anyone can record anything but only those with dedication will work to do something exactly right with the tools to hand — is relevant. Music doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and it’s one thing if Jen S. had her thoughts and visions to hand in her head and another to find the time and space to work them out and yet another again to create something that can resonate. The voice of Me of a Kind, if not something one to one in my own experience on many levels, is nonetheless the voice of reflection, consideration, determination and ultimately some level of comfort with one’s own person — self-acceptance if you like — that’s resonant to me. And it does so without sounding like, say, just another dude on an acoustic guitar doing dull frickin’ warbling. And THAT is crucial.

I would add more videos if there were more out there. Be nice if she got well known enough to warrant it, I’d say.

Purchase You Are Here via iTunes and CDBaby.

The third of ten favorite 2011 albums — Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’

Lady Gaga, Born This Way

It’s not as stark a cover as Depeche Mode’s Violator but it’s almost the same color scheme. Perhaps that’s why I like it.

What to say, what to say. It’s not that there’s been nothing to say, anything but. If anything, first let me direct you to Maura Johnston’s well-observed thoughts on Gaga in concert from a few days ago, and let me pull out this bit:

The highest-charting single from it to make the Hot 100 was Born‘s title track, a paean to tolerance recalling Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and released just in time to debut at the Grammys in February. It has a thumping beat and lyrics about accepting people of all races and sexual orientations; the enterprise had the wide-eyed “let’s get along!” innocence of the ’90s while being clad in a 21st-century sense of self-regard that led to it getting a global radio premiere at 6 a.m. on a Friday.

“Born This Way” ended the year at No. 18, and other singles from its attendant album didn’t fare much better on the radio—even though musically, they were stronger. Gaga’s second-highest-charting single on the year-end Hot 100 was “The Edge of Glory,” an exuberant Clarence Clemons–assisted anthem that sounds tailor-made for a particularly swoop-filled montage in a Top Gun remake. It was No. 29 on the year-end chart. “Yoü And I,” a stomping ballad produced by the pomp-rock architect Mutt Lange, ended 2011 at No. 71; the dizzying confused-catechism love song “Judas,” the album’s second single, missed the year-end chart entirely.

Can a pop artist be the biggest in the world if her successes sidestep radio airplay?

Maura goes on to make that case, but it obliquely reminded me of a comment that Eric Weisbard made on Facebook some time back — paraphrasing him as best as I can remember, he idly wondered, based on some exchanges with his daughter and perhaps some other girls, if Gaga-as-pop-behemoth was ultimately a wish fulfillment construction that critics were happy to aid and abet, that what she did was geared more towards their perceived demographic than that of the Little Monsters. Grounding this a bit more — that what Maura observed in the explicit nods to the past in her singles and more this year reflects who was going to celebrate this a lot, if not the most, even while Adele ended up with the top everything in terms of sales.

Still, at least in my head, Adele is a classic example of someone whose fame strikes me as anonymous. She seems anonymous, period. This year, the two things I can think of that involved any discussion of her beyond the unavoidable were her complaining about the UK tax rate and needing medical attention for her throat, resulting in missed US tour dates. That’s…kinda thin gruel. Her putative musical/celebrity godmother Amy Winehouse generated more regular attention even before her untimely passing, and if that speaks more towards morbidity and celebrity and the nature of the human animal as curiosity seeker than anything else, so be it.

Gaga in contrast revelled in events and actions for most of the year, only seeming to slow down a bit towards the end and even then going so far as to do a Christmas special for the apparent hell of it. None of this has to do with the album, perhaps, but does it even matter? If Gaga is supposed to be the omnipresent net-savvy maximized hyperstar, any album would almost be secondary by that logic. Heck, any song, period.

So context here and thoughts there and the fact that Gaga as template is irresistible bait — IRRESISTIBLE — for people to weigh in on, even and especially if they say they’re tired of her or can’t stand her. You don’t hear that about Adele, to backtrack a bit, and when it comes to other theoretically equivalent hyperstars, Beyonce already did her collaboration with Gaga and has long existed in her own beyond-the-touch-of-mere-humanity sphere, Rihanna is getting away with just as much as Gaga on the one hand but zig-zags rather than progresses steadily via her own imperial phase, and Katy Perry is Katy Perry and appears to be repeating as farce Britney Spears’s first run as tragedy.

But the album! So if the songs are actually tailored for someone like myself to enjoy, if she’s serious about the whole ‘pop equivalent to Iron Maiden’ as self-contained subculture, if the whole thing is a rockist move in not so many words, what of it if it works? And it really, really does work.

I think one reason this became clear to me wasn’t just the endless replays in the first couple of weeks it came out, and how what initially seemed like a monolith of pop/trance turned out to have a lot of different leap-out-of-nowhere moments song per song. It had to do with the three bonus tracks that were available, which when added to the album as I’d originally purchased it — and yep, I was one of those Amazon $1 buyers — ended up slowing everything down, making it feel a little lazier and off. What struck me was that the album really was an unified statement, designed to be heard that way, and which worked that way more often than not.

Gaga doesn’t ‘advance’ anything musically but who cares? Can’t say as I do, and the fact that she’s using familiar arrangements, rhythm constructions, breakdowns, everything that has underscored the beat monster that has long since ruled Europop and which finally has done so over here across the board — good thing too, frankly — is all fine for me, it revels in itself entertainingly. When and where she isn’t perfect doesn’t matter so much as the rush and the endless potential contextualizing. One friend said “Government Hooker” didn’t work for him until he was at a summer pool party in Miami. Earlier in the year Maura noted that there was something brilliant about having “Yoü And I” come out in the fall, it almost felt right for the slowing down of the year. And so forth.

I found myself humming bits from “Bloody Mary” throughout much of the year, thinking about how a video for that would be brilliant. My girlfriend couldn’t get enough of the country version of the title track. And at one point we were driving along through California and — lacking any way to properly plug in my iPhone into the rental’s sound system — listened in as I turned up its volume as loud as I could so we could enjoy “Highway Unicorn” in what seemed like should be its natural element.

No apologies. Love it.

The second of ten favorite 2011 albums — the Joy Formidable’s ‘The Big Roar’

The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar

RAWK. And there you go.

So tempted to stop there. That’d be satisfying on a lizard-brain level and sometimes that’s how my musical lizard brain operates. Actually, that’s probably the case most of the time, with changes of opinion only being rationalizations of initial conclusions, even when it seems like I changed my mind. Sometimes I’m irritated with something on first blush for being derivative only to realize I liked it for that reason (and because it brought something else to the table along with it.) But sometimes I’m right on first blush and then from that point forward, thus this. RAWK, as I said.

Part of the appeal lies, I’m sure, in the fact that I have a lingering Brit-friendly feeling after all these years. The near-automatic “from UK = must be good” conclusion that I had there some twenty years back or so got shot down in flames plenty of times over the years but there’s always a sense — always — that there’s got to be *something* good over there still. Which of course there is, plenty of it, and later entries in the list will say as much, and that won’t even be touching on folks like, for instance, Lady Lesherr or Ill Blu or plenty more besides that is very clearly, happily and comfortably the UK 2011, no matter what the feebs running the place want to pretend otherwise. And they are feebs, believe me.

But here’s a thought — back then, I would have relied on the ever handy Melody Maker to at least slightly clue me into something that passed through their gatekeeping hands, however shaped by press officers and the publication’s own built-in limitations. I first heard about the Joy Formidable thanks to my fellow Americans Maura Johnston and Dan Gibson when they were running Idolator, when it wasn’t a joke. One set of gatekeepers for another, sure, and further biased by the fact that I was now part of the writing community so I could consider them peers, though obv. far more accomplished and known than I. Point being, though, that I could immediately listen, judge for myself and go, “Damn, they’re right!”

(The embed is being flaky so just go here for their performance of “Whirring” on Conan O’Brien.)

So it’s been some time and now the band’s debut album is finally out after EPs and singles and the like and now they’re opening for the Foo Fighters and that’s as it should be. Not stuck as an opening act, rather it’s right and proper that they should be playing big venues even as an opening act. This entry arguably is less about the album than the overall fact that the band not only exists but lives to RAWK and more about that in a second. But I’m so damn glad they exist just to start with.

At the risk of telegraphing where some of this list is going to go in future, for a good chunk of this year I was excessively tired of dude bands. ANY dude bands. The Joy Formidable is two-thirds dude, sure, but the frontperson, guitarist and singer is not and that more than counts for something. It’s not enough just to be not a dude, though, that’s a lazy excuse for rating anything well. Slagging a dude band just for being dudes is just as bad. But I’ve lived long enough to know that a lot of dude bands are frickin’ boring, that a lot of them survive and thrive on comfort and laziness, and I just won’t get anything from them but the sense of ‘well it isn’t surprising but it works I guess.’ Doesn’t matter what the genre or style, trust me.

So why the Joy Formidable in particular? An illustrative example: so earlier this year I had the chance to see them along with my ever-patient and lovely girlfriend. We were in a crowded local venue pressed up against the bar and my sweets was feeling a little disenchanted — some crowd members were dysfunctional human beings one step away from being committed, her legs were killing her, the opening band were dullards and it was getting late. She’d heard the album and all but wasn’t completely sold on them and we’d talked about sticking around for a few minutes and, if she was still not feeling it, heading home. But then the band took the stage and within a few seconds of Ritzy Bryan hitting her first power chord and cheerily and powerfully singing out my girlfriend was all “Wait, I like this!” By the end of their short but hitting-all-the-high-points set she was cheering and clapping like crazy.

That an album or any recording can sometimes just be only an imperfect analogue of the ‘true’ experience is a given; naturally the reverse applies — some performers should only be heard or experienced via recorded work. The Big Roar is great but I didn’t listen to it as much as some, partially because the live show was just that monstrous. Sure, when “Whirring” blasts in with that extra guitar part towards the end it’s eyeopeningly great but hearing Bryan fire up the fuck out of that live towards near Loop/MBV sound levels is something else again.

The Joy Formidable lock into something I’d kinda half forgotten, that I do like my loud guitar anthems and all, though I’d thought I’d long since had my fill. The zig-zag line of descent with the band in my own likes and loves over the years would include Queen, Def Leppard, MBV of course, the Smashing Pumpkins most definitely. That latter point was reinforced a bit by the reissues that came out last month; there’s a clear sense that the Joy Formidable use a bit of that stadium-god on the one hand/arty-overload on the other throughout their work. Something like “Buoy” and how a thick rise and fall determines the flow of the track confirms it in my head.

And again, there’s just something about the fact that it’s a short — heck, damn near tiny — woman leading the way on this front, without apology. Makes me think of someone like Debbie Smith, Curve’s underrated second guitarist in their first incarnation, someone who is all “ARRRRGH” when it comes to the music, but where Smith projected an air of toughness, Bryan’s was all smiles, a projection of — what else? — joy. It can be the joy of going over a cliff at full velocity but that’s enough for me, frankly.

The Big Roar‘s damn easy to listen to, to fire up and let flow, it’s life-affirming, really. It just makes me want to go “Fuck yeah.” It makes me want to see the band headline huge places around the world, to do something like take over Muse’s role in the universe. (And how I would dearly love that to happen — now THERE’S a boring dude band for you.) In my head, it goes “RAWK.” I’m good with that. Plenty good.

Purchase The Big Roar via iTunes and Amazon.

The first of ten favorite 2011 albums — Active Child’s ‘You Are All I See’

Active Child, You Are All I See

And sometimes I feel like I can live inside shimmering harp sonics and falsetto vocals forever.

You Are All I See might, in the end, be the one album of the year that became a regular comfort album for me, something that I put on when I was at a bit of a loss and just wanted to hear something that I liked, but also was something new. So there’s that when it comes to its appeal, but why like it so much to begin with? The reasons go on.

The first time I saw Pat Grossi perform under his chosen moniker was a year and some months ago when School of Seven Bells came through town. Active Child was opening and I knew nothing aside from the name but after a set where he calmly sat, occasionally with a friend backing him up, and delivered one stellar song after another, electronic textures and careful beats and more all supporting his frankly amazing voice, I pretty much went “GUH” and sought him out later where he was selling T-shirts. I picked up one, of course — anyone who knows me knows my wardrobe is kinda mostly band shirts to start with — and talked about how hearing his music made me think of acts like Alphaville and a-ha. Turned out that Grossi was a massive fan of them as well, so it was kinda nice knowing I wasn’t completely hearing things.

I flat out called You Are All I See as one of the year’s best when it came out, so if you want the capsule review take on it from me, follow the link. But to extrapolate on it a bit — that sense of it not actually being an eighties revival is key to its success, it’s just that little out of sync with such a presumed location, sonically and temporally. It couldn’t be anything but something right now simply because it feels like a past fractured and reworked, elements reassembled in a way that are never quite smoothly flowing but are nonetheless put together without any jagged edges. It’s not a huge pop album as such but acts it can be, amping up the midsection of something like “Ancient Eye” while riding a steady, crunch-laden electronic pulse. If anything all the various tensions, musical, vocal, lyrical, throughout (perhaps most especially and obviously on “Playing House”) show it’s an r’n’b album in the modern sense. But where artists like Ne-Yo show the power of contemplation, retrospection and fragility in the context of the mainstream, Active Child is in comparison more cloistered, withdrawn rather than engaging, something you approach slowly not merely because it could break, but because it’s a little alien somehow. Grossi’s voice balances between being divorced from the flesh and just that connected enough still, a weeping angel in truth.

“High Priestess” and “Way Too Fast” aren’t necessarily my favorites from the album but do have my favorite moments, and both lie in the way that they work with introductions. For all the talk about melodrama and what seem to be unconnected-from-reality sonics, on the first song there’s a sudden bluntness in the opening lyrics: “What you gonna do when you get back home? Get a job? Pull your weight now?” It’s not the whole song, but it’s a rhetorical question that takes the song from abstract contemplation into a sudden situating of reality, all the more of interest for being something that can be filled in by the listener as chosen — especially in a time and place like today, when the opportunities aren’t as plentiful as they could be. When one of the later lyrics runs “What you gonna do when you get out of jail?,” the contrast between that and the ‘high priestess’ gets drawn a little more sharply, causing a little more disorientation as it goes. The suggestiveness of that relationship between the abject figure and the focus of celebration is — just — poised enough, something where it almost invites a listener to project suppositions onto it that could go any number of directions.

Then there’s “Way Too Fast,” how it begins with the softest of keyboard notes, a very slow, echoed beat and, soon thereafter, his calm voice. It would seem to be something out of place given the lyrical subject — stillness and slow motion rather than acceleration is the sense of things — but when he returns to the phrase “way too fast” a second time, the addition of chorused, distorted backing vocals pulls everything down swiftly, like a sudden weight flung into the arms of a drowning victim. As it turns out, the song isn’t about the feeling but the aftereffects, and the sense of floating over and through an emptied landscape, punctuated with moments of resonance and action only to be suffused once more into the slow progression, Grossi’s wordless notes a circular filigree. A final keyboard line and buried, whispered/sung repetitions of the title phrase underscores that sense of not apocalypse now but apocalypse revisited, picking a barely healed scab while hidden behind the pose of an electronic ghost.

But over and above all else, that voice. “Ooo I’m trying to find you/Ooo I’m trying to reach you girl” is the kind of line that is obvious simplicity itself, but as with anything cliche, it can depend on the performer — and Grossi sells it. It is enough, more than enough.

Purchase You Are All I See via iTunes and Amazon.

Why I’m unhappy with my top ten list and why I’m doing it anyway

And with that as an inspiring title, what else could go wrong…

Slightly more seriously — so, for the first time in some years, I find myself slightly inclined to do something that I had half thought I’d not do again, namely create a top ten list for the usual end of year this and that. It’s not going to appear today, it’ll slowly but surely work itself out over the next two weeks in the middle of everything else going on with the run-up to the holidays. Which surprises me more than a little but hey, what’s wrong with a little writing challenge?

But let me address the unhappiness first. I’m not unhappy I’m doing the list — for all my protestations I wasn’t ever going to be surprised if I went back to the tried and true to a degree, albeit in a way that makes sense to me. Thus, it’s not going to be ranked, it’ll be biased towards those albums I kept listening to over and again over these past twelve months, it’s not meant to be some sort of canonical ranking, it contains both patently ‘obvious’ choices by most degrees and utter ‘wait, why?’ choices by a similar token. It’s out to please myself, after all, and I don’t have to justify it, I just have to explain it.

But I don’t like the list, nonetheless. For a variety of reasons:

* It smacks of comfort. Too much tried and true, however much the tried and true actually works for me. I tend to mistrust an ossified musical taste on the one hand; on the other, I also recognize where my mind and taste tends to go when it comes to listening for pleasure. It results in a skewed sense of the critical self on a professional self, it limits me when it comes to all the listening I could do. I don’t wish I didn’t like it but I almost wish I didn’t like it all so much as I did. Largely because:

* It leaves out so much. I find myself thinking “So…no metal. No hip-hop. No country, even though that’s what you’ve heard quite a bit of this year thanks to your girlfriend. No straight up pop per se. Pretty white list you’ve also got going there, pal. There’s not even much in the way of psyched-out zone-drone stuff, still your ultimate sonic bread and butter. Hell, friends and acquaintances of yours have been releasing so much this year that’s earned so much in the way of praise in that field — while also taking into account a lot of those things you also just thought about — and your reaction has been almost minimal. What the hell have you been doing this year, anyway?” Thinking on which:

* My attention really has been elsewhere. To a large if not complete degree but hey, c’mon, I stopped a massive project I was in the middle of last year because I was suffering from high blood pressure (really — still am, but it’s now happily under control), I moved and more importantly moved in with someone for the first time ever beyond your basic roommate situation — those two things alone would explain why the blog essentially went dormant. On the music front in turn, I practically seized up for days at a time when it came to plowing through all forms of even just promo mail, I disappeared under invitations to listen to streams and check out new videos and hey here’s a new exclusive this and that and oh my god did you hear this and oh by the way SPOTIFY LISTEN TO EVERYTHING NOW OR PERISH, and so as per usual I dully regarded the explosion of coverage and talk in everything and anything musical with a sense of forlorn resignation and stepping back. Hardly a new feeling — and in his final Poptimist column today Tom Ewing suggests a possibly crucial way to look at it with his larger cultural observation summed up here: “Perhaps nanoculture is best understood as the finest version yet of the web as a game-like experience, in which flow can be achieved but so can boredom, relaxation, control, or any other of Csikszentmihalyi’s states of mind.” Anyway, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that many of my writer friends seem to be able to take in and write and do a lot more with a lot more listening than I can ever manage so I’m not inclined to fully engage on that front.

So, that all said, why the list?

Oh, an itch that always has to be scratched one way or another, I suppose. I talk about music, it’s what I’ve done and will do, however haphazardly or randomly. I like talking about it, and this time around I’ve found that scratch needs to be more than just a general reflection on things via a Pazz and Jop ballot or private rumblings with friends. Combine that with what I guess is a bit of a higher writing profile now, a bit, and there’s a sense of wanting to show off what I’ve got to hand, whatever it might be. But ultimately, in the way that personal listening pleasure has its impact and leaves its traces, if there’s something that engaged me, then I want to consider it in detail, and if my enthusiasm doesn’t convert anyone then at least it can explain myself, just a touch.

I already have a general idea of how I’m going to do this day by day — starting Monday, and running one a day each weekday through the 23rd, when I head home for the holidays themselves — but not necessarily how I’m going to talk about each entry, or what the focus or explanation will be. In any event, stay tuned, and more will be forthcoming.

Posted in Life, Music. 2 Comments »

Halloween AMG reviews, if you like

And why not?

[The] Caseworker — Letters from the Coast
Chris Connelly — Artificial Madness
The Asteroid Shop — The Asteroid Shop
Locrian — The Clearing
Noothgrush — Live for Nothing
Extra Classic — Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like a Laser Beam
Christina Vantzou — No. 1
Sleeping in the Aviary — You and Me, Ghost
Skinny Puppy — HanDover
Supreme Dicks — Breathing and Not Breathing