Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Year In Media: Part 4, Music

I had originally intended this series of posts to be focused on a list of my favorite albums of the year.  However, looking at media in general turned out to a more lengthy exercise.

But here we are.  I should start with an embarrassment.  At my particular age and space and time, I've somewhat lazily come to depend pretty much primarily on's album recommendations.  I've been following that site for over a decade now, and am generally satisfied that I'm not missing out on much that they don't catch.  (Although, one might ask, how would I know?)

But in the end, it really comes down to the amount of new music that I really have time to digest.  Between listening to four decades of popular music in alternating rotation, and discovering older material for the first time, there is only so much time in the day to properly involve oneself with brand new albums in an intimate way.  The albums on this list earned their status only after repeated listens, each of which is a great album in the classic sense: that it is generally excellent from start to finish.

Julia Holter - Ekstasis
The Men - Open Your Heart
Grizzly Bear - Shields
Frankie Rose - Interstellar
Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at a Distance
Beach House - Bloom
Stina Nordenstam - The World Is Saved
Joyce Manor - Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
dissapointments: Wild Nothings, Twin Shadow

One of my favorite experiences in the appreciation of music is the rare occasion upon which an album that seems dull, or even downright awful, on first listen grows on me more and more until something suddenly switches and I fall in love with it.  It is a strange and beautiful feeling, and at a larger level makes listening to music that much more exciting, as first impressions are not necessarily to be trusted, especially negative reactions.  An element of abandon is introduced in which I must give in to the process, trusting that the art itself, and not my reaction to it, will lead me to its beauty.

This happened in part with a few albums this year.  Julia Holter's Ekstasis felt oddly removed and alien, its avante garde stance feeling at first maybe gimmicky in the way that studiously fragmented classical new music can.  But rather quickly its emotion began to resonate and a strange beauty shone through.

Open Your Heart, by the Men worked in a somewhat opposite way.  It unfolded as a series of songs that felt kind of pedestrian at first.  Been there, done that, maybe.  Bonehead guitar solos were fun enough on the first couple of tracks, sliding then into countryfried psychedelia jamming.  Its like the Supersuckers took a break and channeled the Spacemen 3.  But out of this, midway into the album the tone becomes a bit more fragmented and dissonant, with abstract vocals, and sounding more like Sonic Youth.  Abruptly then, the jangling noise hardens into a thick mass of distortion, with delicate harmonies melancholically spinning above.  One can only think of My Bloody Valentine, a high honor indeed.  In its final half, the album plays with each of these themes, blending them together at times, in a mixture of emo/thrash and post-punk/shoegaze.  That these disparate elements can be pulled together with such consistent dexterity is quite a feat.

Joyce Manor's Of All This I Will Soon Grow Tired is classic hardcore emo, and as such, you have to be up for its in-your-face, heart-on-its-sleeve emotional exposition.  I suppose my listening habits have strayed in the past ten to fifteen years since bands like Fugazi were on heavy rotation.  As such, Of All This... felt somewhat of a throwback, and I probably will not ever be as excited about it as I might once have.  Nonetheless, it is enormously well-made.  The songs are short and sweet, and filled not just with hooks but with an admirable gravity.

Perfume Genius' Put Your Back In 2 It is a sad record.  It is beautiful, raw, and earnest, but terribly sad.  It may be that this year has been an emotional struggle for me in many ways, but I'm not sure I've still really been up for meeting the album on its own terms.  It's also a very gay album.  There's such a sense of fragile outsiderness to it, singer Mike Hadreas pouring out his vulnerability in a lilting, delicate tone.  Gospel progressions give the songs a sense of deep pain, struggle and triumphalism.  But all of this, not to mention the sort of Castro disco pseudo-R&B number pun in the title, makes me feel like I am listening to a gay record.  Again, an album to be taken on its own terms.

The other albums on the list were pretty much known quantities, constructed with the same brilliant dexterity as the artists' earlier works.  Bloom, by Beach House might just be my favorite of their yet.  Victoria Legrand seems to keep getting more and more powerful and determined with each new album.

Frankie Rose far surpassed anything with the Dum Dum Girls, creating in Interstellar a hugely dynamic and fascinating electro-pop orchestra. There has been a movement in recent years that might be called "Better Than the 80's", in which contemporary artists pick up the synthesized sounds, guitar tones, simple beats of eighties pop and, well, do it better.  There was always something haunting and melancholy about that era's production values and awkward danceability of its beat.  Shades of The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Cure, as well as sillier pop acts like The Go Gos, the Bangles, The Eurythmics or Cindy Lauper echo throughout this new sound.  Frankie Rose works heavily in this area, sharing space with DIIV, Wild Nothings, Twin Shadows.  Other bands work deeper angles, such as Washed Out and M83's more ambient, Krautish sound, or How To Dress Well's thoroughly deconstructed R&B.

Which of course, can get old.  Disappointingly, Wild Nothings' album this year was unremarkable.  And Confess, Twin Shadows' follow up to 2010's gorgeous Forget, was, apart from its generally great first track, Golden Light, an often times aimless, unlistenable mess.

All in all, here's hoping 2013 is more interesting.

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