It is approaching the end of the year, and people are making their lists of top albums, as the cycle of leaks and hype presupposes that very little of interest will come to light in the last days that is not a prelude of grander things to come. I have made my own private list of notable records, culled from an iTunes playlist and a look at my shelves, to try to preempt any word from an official organ. It's a reminder that my world and the world outside are a venn diagram with little overlap, and that is fine: I have listened to plenty of music this year, about as much as I would have in any other given year, probably, and been satisfied. Music fills the needs of its listeners, and while if there were any true masterpieces of deep meaning I must have missed them, all the discussion I've heard suggests that everyone else missed it too. And maybe it would be tricky to be too invested now that I am not sixteen anymore. So, what sounded good and interesting enough to warrant mentioning as a highlight, what said something in its essence I found sympathetic?
Early in the year I was naming Micachu And The Shapes collaboration with the London Sinfonietta as the record of 2011, but lacking in any kind of critical acumen or knowledge of music theory, or substantial readership, I was not really able to whip up the cascade of verbiage needed to alter discourse in any way. Now it is December and that record remains as unheralded as it did on it was on its release. Let me restate: I think that record sounds awesome, really sonically rich. I also think that more than any other record, it is a testament to how music works, as a series of collaborations both between peers and across genres, beyond time. Micachu and the Shapes are a band whose song forms on their first records seemed sort of indebted to a certain strand of artsy post-punk, with Kleenex being maybe the best reference point, who had their debut produced by Matthew Herbert and earned enough notice from the British music press to be a in a position to be offered the opportunity to collaborate with a classical ensemble specializing in contemporary works. Some new instruments are built, and the music written seems sort of indebted to DJ Screw's playing records at slowed down speeds, the wobbly depth of a sound slowed down being mimicked by string sections phasing in classical minimalism. That's the record itself, but it comes with a download code for an mp3 mixtape, where the classical concert is sampled and sped up, and a drum sound is added to make it suitable for friends of Mica's in the UK grime scene to rap over. This kind of bricolage is the sort of polyamorous relationship with music that obsessive listeners have, actually given a narrative to make connections deeper than a DJ's analysis of BPM. I can make no great vouchers for the ending mixtape, but then, that's not presented as the end result. It's a bonus, the next step in an ongoing recapitulation. Number one record of the year, in my book, narrated as ever by a contrarian.
The best songs, presented clearly and with no abstractions, would go to Bill Callahan's Apocalypse. My favorite record he's made under his own name, since dropping the Smog moniker, coinciding with a loaded enough title to make people take notice. "Apocalypse, eh?" I am aligned very much with Smog, its distance and its black humor, the sort of traits that lead to me finding someone on Twitter calling Callahan "the patron saint of bad boyfriends" but on the work released under the man's own name these traits have aged into something like grace, no longer surly but rueful. This seems like a moment where the aesthetic prettying-up of arrangements since the lo-fi days of Julius Caesar and the slowly warming tone seem to have aligned without slipping into tedium. Not like that hasn't happened before- certain songs on Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock were pretty lovely- but here that tone is sustained, without hints of darkness. Top record number two.
Top album number three was made by Baltimore locals Sejayno and released onto the internet with no one noticing. Like, I wonder how many people first heard of it close to the artists only heard of it when I tweeted a link. Of course they have released physical material with no one noticing so this is the more eco-friendly option. It's called I-95 and is a concept record about the east coast highway as devil's corridor moving from power center to power center. One of these songs is going to show up in the next year on Salamander Wool's LP for Ehse Records, "Solar Solipsis," and while that is a good record it is less beguiling than this one. This is the best record made by anyone I know, the one I feel closest too, because while it is very weird the songs are recognizable as such, vehicles of personality containing much humor. While Twig Harper's Hanson Records CD is my favorite thing that he's done, it is deliberately alien and anti-ego: A horror movie soundtrack to aliens abducting and experimenting on your consciousness. Which is visceral and thrilling and even cathartic, necessary. I would put it above any other record of its type, actually, a wide category of noise that encompasses drone and new age. I would put this psychedelic record trying to peel the top off your school over anyone working to move your heart, is what I'm trying to say, at top album number four.
The U.S. Girls On Kraak record is something that just came to my attention late in the year and I have listened to lots. Pop songs that really pop, including covers of disparate genres: It is so important to me to hear DIFFERENT SOUNDS on a record. While we all complain about the loudness wars negation of classic dynamics, there is something so undynamic about the classical band formation reliance on the same arrangement. Maybe it's notable that the first bands I got into were things like They Might Be Giants, Ween, and Beck, and that I tend to prefer albums to live shows because they can contain more easily contain more sounds. While I adore this Brute Heart record "Lonely Hunter" and its band setup of bass, drums, and viola, there is a moment where interest begins to lag and the song that contains a piano constitutes a highlight. We are now in the realm of records without numerical ranking: I like both of these records quite a bit. I will continue to name the records that call out to be named, to be selected as worthy of discussion in this dialogue of "albums of the year."
For instance, Alvarius B's Baroque Primitiva. Even though it turns out it's mostly Ennio Morricone covers and I guess a record that is mostly covers isn't especially notable. Although it's the cover of "God Only Knows" that ends up being the most notable song, its homemade arrangement giving away to tape-splice psych, removing a phrase and becoming this dark mirror that is somehow essential to the whole thing, some kind of gnostic revelation shedding new light on the eternal. The rest of the record remains of a piece with that moment, building to it in a way that necessitates a cover of a Nancy Sinatra song, the same James Bond theme that shows up in noted Sun City Girls admirer Matthew Thurber's 1-800-Mice: "You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself, and one for your dreams."
Big Blood remain one of my favorite bands, and they continue to put up the majority of their releases at Free Music Archive. I didn't know that would be the case for their LP Big Blood and The Wicked Hex when it was made available from a Greek label, and so I made the costly move of ordering it from Europe. I have no regrets. It arrived the day before I went to the Voice Of The Valley festival in West Virginia. Something appropriate about America and Appalachia and the whole elemental thing to be found in these songs, by and large their longest, made into mantras. Respect is due also to Angels In America, who performed at Voice Of The Valley and have made their records available at the Free Music Archive as well.
I should maybe take this moment to highlight Voice Of The Valley as probably the best thing I did this year, as a change of pace, escaping from a hurricane that hit the east coast to hang out camping with a large chunk of Baltimore, a good mixture of people I see all the time and people I wish I got to see more, as well as strangers, and a good ratio of chats around a campfire to ecstatic dance parties to general silenced vibing. The music was frequently stellar, lots of live sets by people who are maybe not as good recorded (or at least don't make what I look for in a record enough to listen obsessively) but killed it live: Telecult Powers, Container, Unicorn Hard-On, Bee Mask, Bleakend At Bernies, Needle Gun. Other good shows/good decisions/nice changes of pace would be going to a large club and paying over twenty bucks to see Swans with Richard Bishop opening, and going down to DC to see The Raincoats with Grass Widow and an Ian Svenonius band whose name I didn't catch open. One of the highpoints of the going to see shows at the houses of people I'm friends with would be what happened yesterday, when I saw a tour of Scream Mask and Timeghost down from Providence.
Other records I would be foolish not to mention would be the solo releases of the folks whose duet constitutes the song from the Sejayno record that will appear on the forthcoming Salamander Wool record. That is some contorted and awful grammar, my apologies to the English language. Those people would be Carson and Natalie, Salamander Wool himself and Weyes Blood.
Carson's tape, Espionage Briefcase, is an hour's worth of mostly techno, slash folk music. It's like Eastern Europes infatuation with American club culture turned into a descendant of Baltic folk music a weird and alienated American could connect with, pumping out of a car's tape deck and who knows where that car and its tape deck were manufactured? LOVE DEM GUN SOUNDS. Weyes Blood's The Outside Room LP is a real "on the other hand," the sort of dream-pop folk songs which despite Natalie's former cohabitation and tour with Nautical Almanac actually reminded me on my most recent listen of the first Beach House record. But the songs are longer and less poppy and have way more lyrics. Less commercial but still immediate enough that I am sure it has sold out of its limited pressing at this point. Weyes Blood also issued a split cassette with Angels In America, not available on the Free Music Archive but downloadable from the Northern Spy website for four bucks. That's worthwhile, I kind of loved it.
The best records in the abstract camp to be made by widely known quantities were those made by Tim Hecker and Eric Copeland. Ravedeath, 1972 and Waco Taco Combo respectively. I don't have anything to say about those records that don't say anything (in terms of lyrics at least) that have nonetheless generated plenty of discussion despite music writers' bias toward language. They were good: Waco Taco Combo notable for being better than the Alien In A Garbage Dump material. The Whorehouse Blues seven-inch was good too: I hate seven-inches but I like mp3s okay.
I didn't buy all of this music but I bought a lot of it, and I also bought a lot of music that was not as good as these records were. Mostly from musicians who played incredible live shows or people who've made good work in the past. Support the economy of music and art, participate in the commerce of the uncommercial, because it is the uncommercial that is the least likely to be used to soundtrack a commercial, which is what I suspect is the primary income stream for much of the clutter.