When I was compiling my rundown of favorites for the year, making some attempt at a ranked list, a curious thing happened—the list shook out by genre. My three favorite albums of the year were all song-based albums—and, incidentally, by artists I was already familiar with. However, I probably listened to #4–6 as often as #1–3, if not more: these are the ambient records, which I tend to put on while I'm writing and/or working and/or looking for something to sink into, sonically. Finally, the psych rockers pulled up last—Disappears and Moon Duo. I fell a little harder into this genre in 2011, picking up an older Wooden Shjips album too and occasionally checking out a few other acts, old and new, who traffic in the repetitive, muscular rock (even a docile creature like me needs a little testosterone every once in a while). These albums, too, were good soundtracks to writing—just indecipherable enough to function like instrumental music, with a requisite amount of push to keep me engaged with writing and editing projects, or keeping me psyched up for working out/playing tennis.
8. Moon Duo: Seer
That I'm inclined to split my favorites up like this—not only by genre but by the life tasks they most often soundtracked—says something about me as much as it says something about the year in music. What I heard of it, anyway. As much as I like all of these albums, none of them transcended themselves. None of them ran away with my heart. Or, they didn't run that far. That most of these albums are by artists I was already familiar with must mean something too: I tried looking for new artists, new sounds, and for the most part came up empty in 2011. I felt out of step with a lot of trends this year—call it nostalgia or chillwave or soft rock or PBR&B (doesn't matter if those are all different things). Outside of some of the nü-kosmiche ambient stuff, a lot of "new" sounds just didn't resonate with me in 2011. Too, the more tried and true genres, like good ol' fashioned indie rock or more straightforward songwriters, felt limp this year. Artists I've loved—My Morning Jacket, Okkervil River, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine—all put out albums that were just okay. Artists that were new to me—Real Estate, Smith Westerns, Tennis, Wild Beasts, Unknown Mortal Orchestra—ranged from so-so to not bad (fwiw, UMO was the best of the bunch; I hold out hope for whenever they mature to the next level).
Of course maybe I didn't look hard enough; that's on me. And I take it to heart that it's on me.
In a lot of ways I feel I've been in a fog in 2011, and I'm pretty sure it's not entirely due to listening to krautrock and ambient. Lives change: you get busy, you work hard, you crave silence or television, you want to spend time with your family and not on a computer or plugged into an iPod. You get stressed about money. You want to exercise more. You want to spend a lot of time with your kid and you want your kid to chill out, too. You want to go on dates with your wife more often than you can actually afford to. You want to drink a little more, stay up a little later, sleep in past seven (or six, or five), but all of those things have become risky propositions. You want to read the paper in one sitting in the morning—not via your iPhone in bed at night. You want to know what's going on in the world by outlets other than your twitter stream. You want to stop feeling so busy, but you also don't want to admit that you waste a lot of your time. You want all of that, and you want a few other things too—so it's no wonder searching out music on the internet starts to feel... not without pleasure—not at all! But difficult, and easy to give up on.
6. Rene Hell: E.S. Des Grauens in Fifths
5. Mountains: Thousand Square
4. Tim Hecker: The Piano Drop
This list of albums is a contrast (and a complement) to what I dubbed my son's top songs of the year. Those songs—not typical kids songs but oldies, classic country, and generally happy, often deliriously goofy songs—also made up a big part of my listening year. Those were the "family songs." They played around the house, on road trips, etc. Those are rightfully and wonderfully going to be the soundtrack to my memories of this period of my life, when my son was a toddler and I worked in a museum and our house was small and my wife was home and I occasionally ghost wrote blog entries for a professional organizer and the weather was always great. Maybe Tim Hecker and Disappears will soundtrack those memories too, in a different way. Maybe. Maybe I'll forget I'd ever heard those records.
Doesn't matter. All of these albums were my albums in 2011. Outside of Feist's Metals and Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer, my wife was not especially into any of these albums (if she heard them at all). I listened to them on my own time—while walking to work, or in my office, or driving to the tennis courts, or when I was home alone, or in a coffeeshop doing a freelance job. It's hard, lately, to have something that feels totally, 100%, like it's mine. The circle you're able to draw around yourself gets smaller as you get older, have a kid, get a promotion, etc. That's not a complaint—it just means the things that are yours become more precious. With that perspective I look at this list and, on one hand, wish that I liked all of these albums even more—that they fazed me the way, say, albums by Andrew Bird or Animal Collective or Fleet Foxes or Midlake did in past years. And on the other hand I feel a closeness to all of these records. They are pools I can swim into, blankets I can wrap myself up in, hands I can hold, friends I can sing with.
2011 has been a funny year. In some ways it's been one of the happiest of my life, and in others I feel like I sleepwalked through the whole thing. If that's true, then what does this best-of-11 list mean? What are these songs, what were these albums? This:
I walked to work with Moon Duo's Mazes in my headphones. I crossed busy intersections and passed a hospital and stopped at a Starbucks where I occasionally bought a sausage sandwich despite knowing that I should choose anything that is even slightly healthier.
I pushed through while listening to Disappears' Guider (and, for that matter, Lux, their 2010 debut). Pushed through tedious freelance projects, pushed through long days in my windowless office. I felt a connection to an older version of myself—the one who blasted the Jesus Lizard in his dorm room and screamed into a microphone in an warehouse in an industrial park in downtown Phoenix in the summer with no AC while 15 sweltering kids, two of whom had Romulan haircuts because that was a thing, nodded their heads.
I wrote and wrote and wrote to Rene Hell's The Terminal Symphony, an album that I can rarely remember after it's over but I continually feel compelled to return to.
I recognized in Mountains' Air Museum that I'm a sucker for the current trend in ambient music that apes the sweet 70s synths of Cluster and Harmonia, et al., and that I'm okay with that.
I buried myself in Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972. Sometimes that felt perfect, and sometimes I hated that I felt the need to bury myself in anything.
I felt happy listening to Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer—an album that I wasn't expecting would make me happy. She became sort of like a friend who could take it if I called her stupid—2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-0—because she and I both suspected, really, that she might be a genius.
I reconnected with Low, via C'mon, as if they were a brother or sister I hadn't talked to in ten years. Love and regret welled up inside of me as I realized that they had been perfect during all those years I'd been away from them (I bought Trust, The Great Destroyer, and Drums & Guns this year, too). I became cognizant of how much I had missed them, and how much I loved them. Truly, loved them! I imagined that they were feeling the same way about me on the other side of their record, wherever they were.
I felt bittersweet listening to Feist's Metals—by far, by the way, her best album. I felt touched by her words, uplifted by her music. I felt like the year, musically speaking, had redeemed itself when an artist I knew I loved was able to do better than everything she'd done before. I felt rejuvinated by her achievement. I felt sad because so much of this record is about losing something; it made me think about all the things I have to lose. I felt happy because I haven't lost anything. I felt thankful.
When we were out last week for my birthday, "The Circle Married the Line" was playing in the car and my brilliant wife said it might be her favorite song on the record. I told her I really liked it too, though lyrically it didn't make any sense to me. She said she thought the image in the chorus was really beautiful, really simple. I didn't understand—I must not have thought enough about it, because in my mind (really!), I just thought about geometry (or sex). I hadn't considered that I might be right or wrong about it—I just liked the song. She said, "It's the sunset—the sun marries the horizon. It's such a lovely way to put it."
It was. It was beautiful. We were in a parking garage in Hollywood at midnight, and it was beautiful. I saw the sun dip into the ocean and I let out a long breath. I turned on the car and we drove home. The first day of the new year had begun.