For the most part I found myself in an instrumental, non-indie rock mood this week. So: jazz, electronica, ambient, etc. In addition to the albums above which I listened to in full, I also had a few recent purchases all on shuffle—Lindstrøm, Mountains, Raymond Scott, and Cluster, among others.
As I mentioned yesterday, my attention this year, as far as music goes, has been diverted in a variety of ways. Doing a 2009 playlist seemed to miss the thrust of what my year was all about (and probably redundant with every other blog out there); doing a collection of old yet new-to-me stuff would have missed all the music that wasn't new to me that I spent so much time with. So instead I offer this: a 75-track playlist that comes as close as I can to giving some impression of what my listening year has really been like.
The playlist is really meant to speak for itself—though I can't resist tossing in a few comments here and there, if you want to read a few scattered thoughts as you scroll down the list. This adds up to a bit more than four hours of music, so I recommend you click on the play button (it's down in the lower-left corner), minimize this screen, and let me be your soundtrack as you go about your day today. I can promise it's going to go in a lot of different directions, some of which you may or may not expect, so despite my rambling I'm sort of hoping you'll ignore all this talk and just let the music play.
The way I see it there were about five different narratives driving my listening time this year:
So, what does that all add up to? Brand new shit. 80s and 90s punk/indie. Classic country. Krautrock. And a handful of other things sprinkled throughout. Somehow that all made perfect sense to me this year. (As I've said many times: there's a reason this blog is called Pretty Goes with Pretty.) This playlist is intended to be listened to in the order I've presented, in hopes that you'll hear some of the resonances that I have even when jumping from Seefeel to Big Black or from George Jones to the 13th Floor Elevators. Enjoy.
My priorities this year were so far from keeping up with new releases that I've totally failed at coming up with a respectable best-of list—one comprised of actual 2009 releases, that is. I probably could have come up with eight or ten new albums I heard this year that I liked, or that were solid (see last week's post for recommendations of that nature.) But I can't bring myself to make that kind of list. This is something I went on about last year, but my simple stance is that an end-of-year list should be as long as the quality of records dictates it should be. So, if I were to do a list that only included 09 albums, I'd have a top two, maybe a top three. That seemed insufficient as far as a worthwhile blog post goes. So this year I'll dispense with the 09 list and the rundown of favorite old stuff and just jump straight to my own personal favorite acquisitions of the year. I've neglected to include mp3s this time around because all of these acts are going to show up in my playlist post tomorrow (75 songs!). If you're especially eager to hear any of these bands, however, I encourage you to click on the categories at the end of this post; somewhere or other on this blog I have done mp3s for all of these before.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather Post Pavilion is such a transcendent success because it works on the two most essential levels: one, it's a riveting album if for no other reason than its sound—the samples, the harmonies, the songs' cohesiveness, all adding up to something greater than the sum. But two, it's also just a straight-up jam. It's just a fucking fun record to play! "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes," "Brothersport" (especially the big instrumental ravey moment toward the end)... these songs appeal to the head-nodder, the car-dancer, the occasional funky boss that I am. Avey Tare and Panda Bear's voices blend with each other and with the music itself, creating a kind of sonic morass with a shining pop core—it's like the aural equivalent of looking at a searchlight in deep fog: ominous yet comforting. MPP weaves its thread through foreboding numbers like "Almost Frightened," through romantic sentiments like "Bluish," through flirtations with the abstract in "Daily Routine," yet remains compelling and, again, simply pleasurable, throughout. At this point I'm exhausted by talking about this band at all—praising them, defending them, parsing them, dissecting them. Then again this album isn't really for talking about—at its core, no classic album is. It's just for putting on and feeling in your gut that it's incredible.
Faust: Faust IV
Did I really only pick this album up this year? I guess I did—I bought it right around Christmas 2008. But man, it feels like I've known this album forever. I prefer that lie; otherwise I'd have to feel the ache of knowing that I'd made it to my third decade without this in my life. (Confidential to all Animal Collective fans: I've said this before but will reiterate that I find Faust to be a kind of spiritual ancestor to AC—they have a similar blend of seriousness and playfulness, of accessibility and experimentation, of genre jumping and genre defining. You owe it to yourself to dig up at least one of AC's roots by getting this album.)
Dr. Dog: Fate
Wait: Fate was on my 2008 list! I know. It was my fifth favorite album of last year. But it deserves a second shout-out because I think I wound up listening to it more this year than last. If I were to remake last year's list, this would be #1. Unlike the top two on the present list there is nothing remotely experimental about Fate; it happily, confidently blends an adoration for the Band and other classic rock acts, all of whom you've heard of before. The album is also structured like a conversation, with main songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken trading tunes back and forth, each grappling with themes of religion, free will, and yes, fate. By the end of the album you almost feel like they might have even reached a healthy conclusion. Fate is a smart, compelling album—and it's become an essential part of any road trip or pick-me-up playlist.
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
Neko Case made the best record of her career. It can be hard to settle in with—most of the tracks on Middle Cyclone are aching ballads, and it can feel monotonous during the first few times through—but once the record clicks, those aches are your aches. As with the Dr. Dog record, Middle Cyclone mostly sinks its teeth into a lyrical theme—bad romance—in which each song adds a level of depth to all of the others. You hurt for the woman in "Pharoahs" in part because you already felt for the narrator of "Middle Cyclone." You worry for the person behind "This Tornado Loves You" after you meet the protagonist of "The Next Time You Say Forever." And so on. It's not all like this: "Prison Girls" is some hot noir; "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" is just a powerhouse (and a little nuts); and I'm not going to say no to a Harry Nilsson cover ("Don't Forget Me"). Neko Case made the best record of her career—did I say that already?
The Byrds: Ballad of Easy Rider
Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark
These two albums came out in the same year, 1969, and they make a good pair. Easy Rider is the second Byrds album to feature Roger McGuinn and a bunch of guys who weren't original members (and it's also an excellent country record that is as good as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, maybe better). Fantastic Expedition, meanwhile, features three ex-Byrds in Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke (and is also an excellent country record that is as good as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, maybe better).
Animal Collective: Sung Tongs
What can I say? This one was new to me this year. (Richard, after so many conversations in my comments about the merits of Sung Tongs, I hope you feel vindicated that this album has risen in my esteem with every passing month.) Yeah, I still like MPP more, but the allure of this record is so different it's difficult to compare. MPP is immediate; the melodies of Sung Tongs burrow. The rhythms of Sung Tongs waft past you if you let them, but they're not aimless. (And to my surprise it was produced by a kid I knew in high school!)
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms
See last week. I still love it.
Tomorrow: 75 songs. Portrait of a listening year.
Here before you is every album I acquired this year. That's 56 albums in twelve months, down from 89 last year. And just to illustrate how much my consumption has slowed over the course of the year—thanks to book writing, moving, preparing for a baby, and, I guess, working—almost 50% of these albums were acquired between January and March.
Here's another way of breaking things down, to give some sense of where my head has been at this year: 20 of these albums were released this year (compared to 24 new releases last year); 13 were from this decade (compared to 19 last year); and 21 were from the 90s or earlier (compared to 46 last year). Of those older albums, 7 were from the 60s, 10 from the 70s, 3 from the 80s, and 2 from the 90s.
This last bit of statistical breakdown feels totally false to me, because what goes unseen here are the number of albums I picked up that were essentially re-purchases of albums I owned many years ago or was otherwise familiar with already. These were acquired mainly for the sake of putting my head in the sphere of the 80s and early 90s for the purposes of writing my book; I haven't been blogging (too much) about those albums because they are, in a way, "work" related. I like the idea of this blog being pure pleasure. That said, I've got a post planned for tomorrow that will get at a lot of the above and a lot of these 80s/90s albums.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Pretty Goes with Pretty recap if I didn't go further into statistical analysis!
What's kinda interesting to me is that if you compare those stats to last year, the ratio is almost exactly the same, despite buying far more albums last year. If you were to do both years as a pie chart, they'd look roughly identical. In one sense I guess that shouldn't be surprising. However when I do a similar breakdown of what I listened to—not what I bought—I think the statistics will look wildly different. I feel like my listening habits shifted dramatically from 60s/70s to 80s/90s in the last year. (I'll look at those numbers around the New Year. I can hear you uncapping your sharpies to mark your calendars.)
A bit later today: I'll have a rundown of my favorite albums of the year—not just those released in 2009, but instead culled from the albums above. Tomorrow I'll have one last post before the holiday—a massive mix of my listening year. Stay tuned.
Harry Nilsson, Pandemonium Shadow Show (3)
Cluster, Sowiesoso (3)
The Beatles, Revolver and Magical Mystery Tour
Bear in Heaven, Beast Rest Forth Mouth (4)
Dillard & Clark, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark
The For Carnation, s/t
Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (2)
Vinicius Cantuária, Tucumá
My brilliant wife and I went on a brief Beatles excursion when one of her Facebook friends asked for advice on which Beatles album she should start with, now that she was finally getting around to delving into the catalogue. My feeling? Revolver. Revolver is the compass by which you can chart your journey in any direction—backward to the poppier stuff or forward to the more ambitious material. From Revolver, either journey makes sense and feels right. Now I'd also recommend just going chronologically—or even in any ol' random order you want--if you're going to commit to buying multiple albums. But if one is unsure where to start or whether they want to go very deep (let's face it: there's a species of people out there known as "casual music fans"), then Revolver is the compass.
It's been a slow three months for new-to-me music consumption, capping what feels like a low-consumption year. I'll have a little more on my personal year in review soon, but in the meantime I thought I'd wrap up my quarterly MLH post so as not to obscure these eight albums amidst a longer list.
In a year where I didn't spend a whole lot of time keeping up with the newest releases, I tried my best to catch up on at least a few 09 albums I'd been meaning to get. The good news is that most of these records delivered! More or less! If I were giving letter grades, most here would receive a B or B+. I'm going to dispense with the week-long MLH post this time around since I have more year-in-review posts in the works. Without further ado, here's the rundown, in the order they were acquired:
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms
Earlier this year I fell into a small Galaxie 500 hole, re-buying both Today and On Fire, reminding myself how great that band is after many, many years of forgetting about them. As part of that revival I bought and devoured Dean Wareham's memoir, Black Postcards, in which he spent a lot of time waxing on the Feelies as a big influence on him in his teen and college years. In a nice confluence of events, the Feelies catalogue was reissued at the exact same time, so I took it as the sign that I should finally put these guys at the top of my priority list. Glad I did.
Like Galaxie 500's albums, it takes a number of listens before the songs on Crazy Rhythms begin to differentiate themselves from one another. Each track features an airtight rhythm section and the same kind of raw unadorned guitar tone that was favored by many other late-70s bands. It reminds me of a less dancey Talking Heads or less syncopated Devo—it's hard not to think of Devo's "Satisfaction" when hearing the Feelies' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey)." A further distinction from those two bands might be that Glenn Mercer's vocals are far less dynamic than David Byrne or Mark Mothersbaugh. No matter: the songs on Crazy Rhythms are so hypnotic—yet so fun—that a manic vocalist might just get in the way.
John Vanderslice: Romanian Names
I met John Vanderslice a long time ago, back when his first album, Time Travel is Lonely, came out. At the time I booked shows in Arizona. He was a nice guy, the album was great, and the show was great! Yet, eight years later, I never really did keep up with his output (though I'd heard raves from a few different quarters). On the recommendation of Rawkblog I checked out "Too Much Time," a melancholy bit of electroni-pop that has since become one of my favorite songs of the year. Though the electronics crop up here and there on Romanian Names, for the most part the rest of the album is much more guitar-oriented; the first half of the record is full of great indie pop—"Fetal Horses," and "D.I.A.L.O.," for instance. Moving into the second half things start to slow down, delving into more atmospheric and fragmented material. I appreciate the move into a different territory, though it never quite gets me in the gut. At any rate the album is solid overall. And I must admit a strange affinity to "Fetal Horses" after many weeks of feeling baby pgwp doing somersaults in my brilliant wife's belly. If it's true that fetal horses gallop in the womb, let's all be glad baby boys just kick a little.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Who expected Phoenix to make the best album of their career this year? Not me. It's not a perfect album—a few of the tracks on the second half feel a little too similar to "Lisztomenia" and "1901," as if the band decided to just start over on side two—but for those two singles and the apex that is the two-part "Love Like a Sunset," Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has been a great antidote to my recent listening slump. It's actually that latter track, the mostly instrumental centerpiece to the album, that has become the highlight for me. It spins WAP into a different place—somewhere more expansive, less pop-oriented. In fact, its epic quality is what sabotages the album's second half. When the band starts up again with "Lasso," featuring a vocal melody we've already heard a couple times in the first part of the record, you start to wonder if Phoenix only has two tricks up their sleeves and "Sunset" was just a fortunate case of lightning in a bottle. I like all the songs on the second half of the record, it's just that I want them to deliver more. The band hints at an escalation but then fails to escalate.
Kings of Convenience: Declaration of Dependence
If I have to wait five years for every Kings of Convenience album, only to discover with each release that the duo basically refuses to develop their sound beyond that of their debut, 1999's Quiet is the New Loud... well, that's actually totally okay with me. With their third record, Kings of Convenience have turned in something about as surprising as Thanksgiving dinner. And I don't really have a problem with that; I'll take Erland Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe's eerily similar harmonizing voices and simply strummed acoustic guitars about as readily as I'll take a turkey breast and mashed potatoes. The first half of Declaration in particular—"Mrs. Cold," "Me in You," "Boat Behind"—is as good as the best material on either of their other albums. As of now I still find myself distracted by the time I get to the album's second half; the songs get quieter, darker, and a little less distinct. But the first half is so enjoyable that I continue to return to the record in hopes that the later songs' pleasures will reveal themselves in time.
(I'll be the first to note the vaguely positive reaction to this record vs the vaguely negative reaction to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, despite that I feel both records have incredibly strong first halves and somewhat indistinct second halves... I think it comes back to that idea of "hinting at escalation"; Phoenix points toward a more varied record and then backs away, while the Kings of Convenience rather staunchly remain in a single musical domain. Heck, you might even say they spell it out in their album title.)
The Fiery Furnaces: I'm Going Away
Had I segmented this quarter's haul into my usual best/rest categories, I'm Going Away might have been the only record to wind up on the "rest" side of things. There are other records here that are more predictable than the Fiery Furnaces' latest, but that's not the same as saying they're more disappointing. I give this band a lot of credit for refusing to stagnate, to constantly needle their audience; but with their premeditated irritation comes the risk that fans (or I, at least) won't always want to stay on board. Widow City, their last album and my first exposure them, is one of my favorite albums of recent years—it's confrontational, idiosyncratic, funny, and smart. I'm Going Away is all of those things as well, just less fun to listen to. The new record depends more on piano, less on guitar; more on blues progressions, less on the proggy compositions that fired up so much of Widow City. That's not to say I'm Going Away is without its merits—songs like "Even in the Rain" still burrow into my head whether I want them to or not—it's just not, overall, quite the flavor I was hoping to taste.
Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark
After a couple false starts with getting into Gene Clark's solo material, I've finally hit upon the excellence I knew he was capable of. For his first of two collaborations with Doug Dillard, Clark hit on a modest but wonderful country/rock hybrid. There is something almost ego-less about the material here; the songs are simply good, aspiring to nothing more or less pure than that goal. Opener "Out on the Side" is one of the best songs Clark has ever written; his lead vocal aches while the backing harmonies, supplied by Dillard and former Byrd bandmate Chris Hillman, buoy the song beautifully. Those same harmonies—they're not as otherworldly as David Crosby's contributions to the Byrds, nor as steady as the Gosdin Brothers' contributions to Clark's first solo effort—lift many of the other tracks, like the gospel of "Git it on Brother" or the skillful "Train Leaves Here This Morning" and "With Care from Someone." Fantastic Expedition is just that—a fantastic expedition—and belongs in any collection that already includes records like The Notorious Byrd Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin, or American Beauty.
Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind
Between Merriweather Post Pavilion—my favorite album of the year—and Sung Tongs, which was new to me this year, 2009 could be characterized as my year of Animal Collective (if it weren't already my year of Slint). It's fitting that one of the last new releases I'll pick up this year is this EP—sort of a little bow to tie it all up. And that's really how I perceive Fall Be Kind: not the latest statement from the almighty Animal Collective, but a nice capper, a stocking stuffer. The EP holds together as a cohesive, twenty-something-minute piece. It's spacier, less rhythmic than MPP, yet less playful than something like Sung Tongs and less meandering than parts of Feels. Have I placed it on the Animal Collective Map yet? Anyway, you either already have this and hold your own opinions or you could give two shits. I like it.
Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship
The very fact of a new Tortoise album this year spurred me to revisit their whole catalogue earlier this year, though I didn't finally get to Beacons of Ancestorship until just a few weeks ago. After being away from Tortoise for most of this decade, it's been nice to welcome them back to rotation. All of their albums stand up to close listening—they're impeccably produced and impeccably played—and they also work well as non-distracting "work" music. That's slightly different from "background music" in that even as a Tortoise album can stay out of your way, it still finds a way to inspire—to subtly, perhaps subconsciously, spur you to concentrate and excel at whatever it is you're doing.
That's a nice way of talking around the quality of Beacons of Ancestorship. At this point I feel about Tortoise approximately the same way I feel about the Kings of Convenience: every few years this group is going to get together and make a record that sounds more or less like the last one. If your expectations are properly adjusted, everything's cool. Ever since solidifying their lineup around the time of TNT, Tortoise has consistently created their trademarked brand of electronica/jazz/film score hybrid. I don't really have any complaint with adding such an album to my collection every few years, so if that's what Tortoise wants to do then that's what I'll take. I can't say there isn't a part of me that wishes they'd take more risks, push themselves as composers and/or improvisers, just be more adventurous. Do people remember or realize that fifteen years ago people talked about Tortoise the way people talk about Animal Collective now? The exuberance—the expectation—that surrounded a Tortoise or Tortoise-related release was pretty fucking high. For whatever reason the group settled into a comfortable place and, starting around the time of Standards, have tempered all of those expectations. It's sort of a bummer, but it also doesn't suck completely. Tortoise have become dependable, for all the good and bad that goes with that word.
Actual content will be coming to this blog next week!