Not a list of 15 albums but still something

If you’ve been on Facebook at all you’ve been part of the whole ’25 random things’/’15 core albums’/etc. wave that’s been going around for a couple of months, either as a writer or as someone tagged in someone else’s notes. That latter situation has been the case with me now for a while and I’ll admit, it’s been a little awkward for me. I’d received one or two private notes along the lines of ‘hey but I really want to see what albums you’d list’ and, sure, it’s flattering.

But as I mentioned in my end-of-year ballot essay submitted to the Village Voice, I’m just not really in a list-making mood at all anymore. There is something of the sense of overall willful rejection about my belief, a casting-off of something constricting that at one point I would have participated with full gusto in, if not anticipated. At the same time, I’d already long established certain key touchstones in my musical life and talked about them here and there — this post, one of the first I made on the blog, quotes a post from the Usenet days which I think serves as a good a chart of where I ended up as anything else without necessarily being a full explication of where I’m at these days. (For instance, thanks in large part to good folks like John D. and Dan raving about his work, I’m finally dipping my toe into Mahler more thoroughly than I had before — even though I had the CDs sitting around for about two years. Long story.)

Still — and maybe thinking about Rickey’s passing and how he was a generous and constant commentator on the music he loved and loved sharing has something to do with it — there’s something about marking standards that can be of use, at least in self-articulation and consideration. So, unordered but with brief explanations, what’s here is not a list of the most important albums in my life or the most essential necessarily but rather some of a number of albums that I could describe as fallbacks — something I put on where I need to hear something, anything, but I’m not sure what.

By default, these are albums as comfort food — they don’t challenge or surprise and as such they have run the risk of simply filling up time between silences and new listens and whatever else may happen. The temptation to use them as crutches has to be fought against — but I would never reject them, not now and not after so many years.

Lull, Cold Summer

I have a slight advantage here in that I’ve already spoken about this album in detail, but that was ten years ago as part of the 136 list — here’s my entry, which I’m going to reread only after writing a bit here. While not the only Lull album, and only one of heaven knows how many albums Mick Harris has created over time, this is the one that I think most fully signposted my love of ambient drone as such, something less of a template for where the form would go as it was a personal sense of it honing in on and extending my own necessity for the form — I can’t not listen to things like this, if you like. But unlike the volcanic impact of MBV and “Soon,” this is something that came to the fore quietly, one of many things picked up in 1994 or so as part of a wash of albums tagged as ‘ambient’ or ‘isolationist’ or what have you.

This, however, was the one that stuck with me, that I found myself always going back, very often for the simple reasons alluded to above — “I need something, I don’t want or need it to be too intrusive, what shall it be?” A functional music, then, something I could put on for an hour and twenty minutes that would always comfortably be there filling up the room while I typed or read or thought. As a self-conscious antithesis to so much of what Harris had done up until he started working under the label, and as an antithesis to so much of what had gotten me into music to start with — pop hook immediacy, the impact of a lyrical hook, the visual charisma of a performer — it holds, I think, much more of a sway over me than I might fully admit.

(And now in rereading my 136 entry there, I smile at the various stylistic quirks, as ever, but sympathize with the tone and intent of that person ten years back, whoever he was.)

The Cure, Faith

Interesting, really. I’m honestly not sure if this is the album I listened to most often by them or not. It’s actually been something of a while since I gave it a proper listen. But more than anything else by them, and more than anything else by almost any other artist, this was the album I used to fall asleep.

Which sounds strange, almost insulting, but isn’t meant to be. Without turning this into a lengthy discussion of Cure history, Faith occupies an unusual sonic place for the band that they’ve never quite returned to — only their third album, and almost the complete opposite of the one that followed it, the fill-most-every-corner-with-ugly/beautiful-sound Pornography, Faith relies in starkness and understatement, suggesting rather than imposing. Its most concrete impact might in the words and images Robert Smith puts forward, but even in settings where they receive a focused clarity they sound frozen in distant spotlights. The one great exception to this, thanks to its brittle, trebly edge, is “Doubt,” but I always thought it interesting that this was the one song the band never performed live at the time — it throws the rest of the album into sharp relief.

And that rest of the album is a perfect nighttime listen — for a while there I would throw it on repeat and just let it play at subliminal volume throughout the night. Few albums have such a sense of immediate presence at near-inaudible levels; on a technical level it’s a credit to the band and their producer/engineer at the time, Mike Hedges. It provides a tactile connection, acts as an illustration of the dictum that less can be more — the drums still strong, almost shocking, the bass a blunt undertow, the guitar a suggestive wraith.

Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth

I’m a little amused here to find out that what I had to say about this album two years ago when the fancy reissue of it came out has gone down the memory hole — for some reason the links to it in the OC Weekly archive persistently go to my review for the Kurt Cobain documentary film soundtrack About a Son instead. But perhaps that’s appropriate, to give some fresh thoughts about this remarkable one-off of an album (setting aside the recentish reunion, at least).

One thing I remember saying about Colossal Youth is how it seems to change upon relistening, each time — at some points it is a complete inversion of rock as macho explosion of energy, instead a quiet, minimal collection of observational songs led by a cheap rhythm machine and guitars meant to recall knitting, as one of the Moxham brothers recalled it. At other points, everything seems to have a fierce, unbearable tension — so tightly wound it could in fact rip open but never once does.

Calling Colossal Youth indie-pop or post-punk or whatever doesn’t merely show up the limitations of genre names, it shunts this remarkable record to the side far too firmly, a commercial success in the UK upon release, something that constantly rewards a relisten just for its delicacy of details, for its embrace of the hook and the melody and the beat, for its belief and the band’s belief in the power of observing and reflecting on the mundane.

Other albums could be named but these were the three that most immediately leapt to mind. In looking at them as a group there’s a certain uniformity that suggests built-in predispositions, or biases — all UK outfits, all relatively ‘unsplashy’ for lack of a better term, rockcentric or rock-derived (even the Lull almost certainly wouldn’t be what it is without Mick Harris’s extreme metal background). It certainly isn’t illustrative of everything I enjoy — heck, last night at a small get-together at my place I wasn’t doing much but playing Rhino’s Disco Box constantly, for instance.

But they’re all a big part of me now, and they’re always there if I just find myself wanting to hear something, anything. This, in the end, is enough.

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