One of my biggest disappointments this year was the Voice Of The Valley noise festival. The past two years, it's been a highlight of the year, to get out of the city, to go camp in the woods of West Virginia for a few days, with a large group of people from Baltimore creating a miniature version of the city that can sit around a campfire. The music is generally great: All of a "noise" or "experimental" nature, but with a great deal of variety. In 2012 there was Tiger Hatchery's free jazz and Gary War's blown out synth pop, each playing in front of an audience that was generally into what was happening, with whoever was particularly into one act or another circling to the front of the stage. This year, the event was held at a different campground, with one person previously heavily involved in the curating sitting out, sound that was pretty much garbage, and almost no female performers. Everyone was bummed out and disappointed, and when the rain turned the dirt to mud and soaked through tents to make sleeping bags into breeding grounds for hypothermia, many bailed out early. It felt like something dying, even if it was just my interest. As people played their undercooked electronic music, I kept on thinking about how much I'd rather be listening to rap.
A much smaller disappointment is that I did not end up consistently writing about music for a print publication this year, although for a minute there I thought that would happen. I'm not sure how interesting of a columnist I would've ended up being: I think the initial offer was made from an assumption that I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, including lots of "experimental" stuff, but this year I had almost no interest in any of that, and was instead mostly into pop music. This definition of pop music is not the same as everyone's- I'm not sure how genuinely popular anything I listened to was- but it seemed at least to be made by people with an interest in pop music, and an interest in "swinging for the fences," some degree of emotional transparency, and a disinterest in abstraction. The music I liked pretty much all chose warmth over coldness. Also I think pretty much all of my favorite non-rap music was made by women, at least in part. If you look at that big post I made where I discussed the books I was reading, pretty much all of my favorite books were written by women, and my favorite comic to come out this year was probably Anya Davidson's School Spirits. (This certainly says more about me as a person than it says about women as a gender but take it however you want to take it.)
But what am I actually talking about, you might be asking yourself?
My favorite band this year was probably Blanche Blanche Blanche, who are definitely experimentalists at heart. But that experimentation seems more related to jazz, and song, than electroacoustic composition or whatever- It seems very human. If you had never really heard Frank Zappa but only knew him as a dude who championed Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs- Wooden Ball is sort of like the dissonances of Trout Mask Replica played on a synth, while being grounded (like how bass can work in a jazz context) in these sort of flat speak-sung girl vocals. I've described them as being "younger sibling music," invested in a sort of brattiness. Breaking Mirrors has parts being played by a rock band and it feels very tight, only slightly off-beat. The energy seems related to what Deerhoof were doing ten years ago. It also feels related to Matthew Thurber's comics - they just did the music for an online ad for Infomaniacs but I'm not sure if that's for a love of the game of if Matthew just paid them - and the newspaper Mothers News. These are my favorite things. This band seems to be doing the thing that happens when you call a band your favorite band, beginning to seem like a part of my identity, or conception of self, as much as they're a separate entity. It makes me wonder if Zach Phillips was into They Might Be Giants when he was a pre-teen.
The new Saturday Looks Good To Me is such a classic conception of pop, that K Records thing of romanticizing the 1960s and girl groups, this infatuation with reverb and romance that is so distant from today's pop music emphasis on bass and the body, that it feels at odds with almost everything in the world that includes music and its attendant culture. This feels so distant from the world of partying I don't even remember what horrible stupid shit had went down the night before that led me to tweet the lyric "The city's falling apart, time to build a new city." This record is a form of gorgeousness that you only see when everything else looks ugly save for the weather.
I ended up feeling the new Marnie Stern really hard. I had been really into her first record when it first came out, the way it moved like a Deerhoof record, but it seemed like, in the intervening years, as she was becoming more straightforward, she was moving through classic hard rock in a way I found a little unpalatable. The Chronicles Of Marnia feels like it's hitting the pop spot cleanly, and it suits the inspirational pep talk thing Marnie does well. It feels bright, effervescent.
Similar feelings are evoked by the new Fielded record, Ninety Thirty Thirty, a lot, although certainly some songs are better than others. I've seen her do noise sets, and her last record I viewed as a sort of experimental folk record, but this is bright, shiny. I described it on a couple of occasions as "Kate Bush meets Bruce Springsteen" and while both of those are artists that I can't really listen to a full record by, I don't think, somehow the sweet spot between the two, when it converges with Lindsay's own particular sensibilities, I was able to get behind. (Fielded is the project of a woman named Lindsay Powell. I need to point this out because it seems like in the context of this sort of rock-based but with eccentric edges pop music I could be alluding to Lindsey Buckingham. And the Fielded aesthetic does seem like the work of someone who might have a shrine to Stevie Nicks somewhere in her soul.)
And while invoking Fleetwood Mac I should mention that I was just as into that Haim record Days Are Gone as every major press outlet. The personalities behind the record seem deeply normal, to the point of blandness, almost, but I found that compelling. Most music feels like it's being made by "artsier" people: People who found each other and it was a great relief. This band of sisters feels so assured, relaxed and comfortable, that it feels adamantly mainstream. But they make the sort of music that you want normal people to make, rooted in all sorts of pop music that's actually really good, as opposed to the sort that's actively horrible. There is in this music the sort of niceness that you get sometimes in people who are privileged enough to have never learned the defensiveness and fear that infects most people. I like this sort of person a lot but they never really want to hang out with me as they've got their own thing going on.
Much more personable was Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana, which in its obvious nostalgia for 1990s indie rock shares my interests. It seems really similar to Helium, or a Pavement record. Their lyrics read well, they sell poetry zines at the merch table, and the bandname is a Love And Rockets reference. A similarly fun rock band, 2 Ton Bug made really satisfying garage rock, while maintaining Twitter accounts that make me feel like I would get along with them really well if we lived in the same city. They made my favorite music video of the year:
Other indie rock records I liked a lot that are sure to show up on other people's end-of-year lists were those made by Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, Neko Case, and Bill Callahan.
The rap record I listened to the most often this year was Earl Sweatshirt's Doris, but the rapper I kept up the most with, downloading multiple mixtapes, was Starlito. His Step Brothers 2 record with Don Trip is probably stronger than this two solo albums from this year, but people looking to dive into his oeuvre with a free mixtape are recommended to check out Funerals And Court Dates from last year. Rapping that goes super-hard, verbally and is incredibly moving in the way that writing can be when it means it the most. As interesting as the Kanye West record was in terms of production, these records actually rewarded paying close attention to them. I also liked Young Thug, for not really rapping but taking the form of rap and just making it weird- his work on the Gucci Mane song "Virgin" is incredible. I don't mean to go over the entire genre of rap in a single paragraph, but I feel like this music has been discussed plenty, enough so to actually inform my thinking, and I cannot even have the illusion that I have something new to say. Lil Ugly Mane's "On Doing An Evil Deed Blues" was a great song. Danny Brown's Old was good. I liked the Cam'ron and Da Mafia 6ix mixtapes although I only listened to each once or twice. I'm looking forward to the new Future record dropping before the end of the year, as well as the new R Kelly.
Music I thought was beautiful, more rooted in chamber music or instrumentals, was Colleen's The Weighing Of The Heart and the cassette tape release of Brute Heart providing a soundtrack for The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari. I also liked the White Poppy LP on Not Not Fun and her cassette tape Drifters Gold, which were much less composed, more loop-based and repetitive, but still beautiful.
There is other music I liked this year, and this is still far too long and disordered to be any type of year in review. These are the things I feel like I have to talk about, the things that to not mention would be lying.