Saturday, November 20, 2010

“Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man”

Damn, we're reaching the end of 2010 already and already people are generating music of the year lists and I can never seem to get anything done when I want it done and . . .

I used to write about music a lot here at the blog—with literature and politics, it was the third part of my intended three-prong approach to blogging. But it fell by the wayside to such an extent that I didn't even include any music posts in my clip show post from six months ago. Which is sort of too bad, because some of those music posts weren't too terrible. The most recent ones were those in response (1, 2) to last year's critical brouhaha about Sonic Youth (which is fitting, I guess, considering the more recent noise in response to Steve Albini's remarks about Sonic Youth's activities as major-label pimps, about which I may or may not have something of substance to blog, but for now suffice it to say that for all my considerable love of Sonic Youth, I tend to agree with Albini). There was one about mid-period Dylan and politics. There was the spate of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) dealing with "Indie Rock and whiteness", largely in response to the debate surrounding an article by critic Sasha Frere-Jones (notes: the third of those deals with literature as much as it does music; the fourth is really only an excerpt from related posts from Carl Wilson, but you should read those too). There was a post about my discovery that I unexpectedly liked a Stephen Stills album. There was another one jumping off of a discussion of free jazz into thoughts about literature and anxiety and artistic choices. Perhaps you're interested in my list of favorite jazz albums from the 1990s? Or my thoughts on the incomparable Bill Callahan/Smog? Or on the Beatles? Or my narrative upon discovering a mysterious, unplayed cd in my collection? My defense of the difficult (or even "boring") against the cult of the fun? My post about Richard & Linda Thompson? Or my post about post-punk, the history of my taste in music, and Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up and Start Again (which is of course not unrelated to my posts [1, 2] on rockism and authenticity, or my passing remarks about poptimism, or the one about interrogating bias in taste in music)? And, wow, I tend to forget I did these: there was that series of iPod rundowns, where I wrote about the songs that came up randomly on a given day; those ended up being less fun to do than I'd thought they would be (though they were fairly popular, relatively speaking), which is why it died three years ago. Or... um....

Anyway, I'm unlikely to post about music much going forward, so this serves as an ending of sorts. In any event, the pre-colon title to this post, if I could have figured out how to make post titles in Blogger exceed 90 characters, was going to be something pithy like: "A scientific survey of all the music of the decade comprising the years 2000-2009, culminating in an altogether objective list of the best albums from that self-same decade." Or not. But anyway, this post is, finally, about the music of the last decade, as experienced by yours truly, so the title would at least have had that right. Plus, you know, there's a list. It's not too late to post a list, is it? No? But it's still good that I got it in before most of the annual lists for the best music of the current year, right? Yes? Ok. But first a personal narrative:

In early 1999, I bought the March issue of CMJ's shitty little monthly music magazine. I bought this copy because it had Kurt Cobain on the cover. It was then five years since Cobain's suicide and so the copy read "The Day the Music Died" or something stupid like that (as if I'm not sure I quite remember what it said; in fact, that is exactly what it said). As I'm writing this, I am just now realizing that I must have been attracted to the issue, not just because I had been a fan of Nirvana, but because in a sense for me music had sort of died around then, or had started to. At any rate, I had long been at an impasse. This is fitting given what I'm about to relate, because the purchase of this magazine turned out to be a watershed moment for me and my music fandom and consumption. Naturally, the cover article itself was instantly forgettable, but as with all issues of CMJ Monthly, a cd came with the magazine featuring songs by artists reviewed inside. And, again, as with all such cds, most of the music was either terrible or forgettable or both. But the first song on this particular cd was "The Plan" by a band I'd barely heard of called Built to Spill.

Let me set the stage. By this time I already owned what any sane person would call a lot of music. I had passed 1000 cds the previous Fall (oh, how we remember the great moments in our lives!). I had worked at a record shop and had a fairly diverse taste in music, though by no means as diverse as I might have thought.

And Nirvana had, indeed, at one point changed my musical life. I was a classic rock guy through high school and most of college, spiced with a little REM, some Replacements, even Sonic Youth (though Goo), when I heard Nirvana for the first time: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" remains the only song by a theretofore unknown-by-me artist that I have stayed in the car to listen to the end the first time I ever heard it. It was, in a word, awesome. Then it turned out there was an underground bubbling up (I remember clearly hearing PJ Harvey's "Sheela-na-gig" for the first time the following year; but then it was the year-in-review show on WHFS: I was always late). But for me, it was the bubbling up that mattered. I didn't follow the threads down. Essentially, I learned about music through Spin magazine, and if it was really new, probably not till their own year-in-review issues. If it didn't get mentioned there, I likely didn't know about it. I was curious and open but not actively adventurous or confident. But still, I heard a lot of great independent music that way: Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Yo la Tengo. By the end of the decade, I was at a loss when it came to rock music and also felt I was losing the thread. I bought a lot of older jazz, folk, and classic country, and kept up with the indie rock bands I knew. I went to Bob Mould and Sonic Youth shows. I was obsessed with Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses. I bought Yo La Tengo and REM albums the day they came out. I was into Bjork and Radiohead, and I liked Massive Attack and Tricky and Portishead and Cornershop. I cherry-picked the occasional rap album: Outkast's Aquemini, Missy Elliott's first album, cds by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Gang Starr.

There was obviously plenty of music for me to get into and plenty of stuff I enjoyed, but I was dissatisfied, without my own compass, and wanting something interesting, as well as something that rocked. (This is how I found myself buying, ::shudder::, a Korn album; in retrospect, that earlier me would have been much better off with the Deftones, if only because they're not Korn.) So, in the wake of this issue of CMJ, I bought Built to Spill's album Keep It Like a Secret. And, friends, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I listened to that cd over and over again, pressing it on roommates and friends, rocking out, singing along, singing along to guitar solos like it was Zeppelin or something, which it sort of was. I quickly bought everything in their back catalog. I was hooked. I read about them online extensively, spending a lot of time at CD Now (anyone remember that site?) following that site's flawed but addictive links to bands who influenced them or they influenced or whatever. And this dropped me square in the middle of the rock underground that I'd barely known existed. I was like a little kid again, obsessively tracking down leads, uncovering new-to-me bands, reading reviews and histories. My obsession with all things Kristin Hersh meant that I'd been spending a ton of time on the Throwing Music message boards, where in late 1999 someone posted a link to Pitchfork's list of the decade's best music, much of which I'd had no inkling (this list has disappeared from their site, by the way, replaced by a more recent stab at the same decade; the first list was aggressively indie rock). Built to Spill led me pretty easily to Modest Mouse and other current bands, but eventually and more importantly somehow also to Slint and forward and back from there. Then the rock or post-rock I got into dovetailed with the folk and jazz I was into, and I was doomed. (Example: I'd started buying John Fahey reissues as a consequence of my preexisting interest in folk music; around the same time, following my new threads, I bought Gastr del Sol's Upgrade & Afterlife because I erroneously thought band-member David Grubbs had been in Slint. I saw with excitement that the last track on that album was a cover of Fahey's "Dry Bones in the Valley" and my worlds collided.) I went sort of apeshit-crazy. It's hard to describe the ways in which my favorite musics crossed and spoke to each other and opened up giant avenues of exploration and thrilled me. Over the next few years, I estimate I bought between 250 and 300 albums a year. Obviously, huge amounts were backfills from the music I'd missed from the 90s, when I should have been more awake, as well as various and sundry post-punk, jazz, and reissues of what the hell ever—but even so, enough were from the 2000s so that the decade is the only decade for which I will ever have listened to enough new music to form an actual opinion about it while it was happening.

But then things got even more complicated. Some of the above-linked posts go into this in more detail, but I realized that I'd been missing stuff that I would have liked, music that my prejudices (in particular my pronounced anti-pop prejudice) prevented me from even hearing. Following the poptimists' challenge, I gave chart pop and dance music a chance; I listened to more new rap, started to buy new metal for the first time since Metallica was worth listening to. I had only just begun sampling non-Western music. And it all quickly became untenable. Around the same time I found myself happily in a new relationship, and I started to realize that I couldn't get to know what I already had let alone keep up with new music to anything like the same degree. Which, combined with my shifting political outlook, led me to re-assess my perspective on hyper-consumption. Which, combined with having a new baby and no time, led me to virtually stop buying music altogether.

But I still have what I have and I still listen to it and I have this list, see, the list of my top 101 albums of the years 2000-2009, and I'm going to share it with you. Why 101? Because I'd done all the trimming I'd wanted to do to get to 100 and then noticed I'd inexplicably overlooked Pan*American's gorgeous 360 Business/360 Bypass and didn't feel like finding room for it, so I just added it. Since the list is long, and it seems to me that further notes would be lost and unread if placed after such a list, some brief notes precede it. The albums are listed alphabetically by artist. I was going to limit the number of albums per artist but decided fuck it, I don't want to have to decide which Animal Collective album to remove, since they're so different from each other. In general, an album had to be more than just one or two great songs to be included (hence, no LCD Soundsystem, despite "All My Friends" being one of my favorite songs of the decade and possibly ever) and I generally had to have had some period of obsession with it (though even some of those didn't make the cut; hello Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, though it probably would have made it if the list bulged out to 110). Given the arc of the above-sketched narrative, you'll see that the list is very heavily, well, white. There are a few rap albums, a couple metal albums, a lot of post-rock or sort of psych-rock or stuff that once would have been called prog (possibly because I'm old, but also because I work in an office in front of a computer all day and that kind of thing sounds great in that context, not to mention sounding great when drifting off on a commuter train when too tired to read, which I really should be doing but motherfucker I'm exhausted a lot and why the fuck won't she sleep more?), not a ton of "indie rock du jour"-type records (for which I generally feel too old, as previously mentioned on the blog, but the definition of which may be meaningless to most, so whatever), almost no quote-unquote pop, a paucity of black artists (for which I routinely have felt guilty, but music is a social thing and few of the people I've run with after college have listened to much of anything other than indie rock or classic rock, or maybe jazz, so there's some older black music, but you know what I'm saying, so it was all on me, and it took too long before I became confident exploring pop and rap and whatnot, and it's way too late to effectively redress this or balance the scales or anything like that, etc); and I really wish more of my favorite jazz artists had released great and not just good albums this decade, or that I had them, but there it is (I'm especially sorry to not be able to include a Joe McPhee album, because dude is fucking awesome and also really nice). Artists of the decade for this listener? Animal Collective; Smog/Bill Callahan; Jackie-O Motherfucker; the Mountain Goats; Deerhoof. Enough. I could go on and fill in and expand and so on because inevitably I feel I'm leaving something personally crucial out of that narrative, but enough blather, enough. The list (sorry for the tiny type, but Blogger is annoying):

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Univers zen ou de zero a zero, 2002
The Angels of Light, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, 2003
Animal Collective, Spirit They're Gone Spirit They've Vanished, 2000
Animal Collective, Here Comes the Indian, 2003
Animal Collective, Sung Tongs, 2004
Animal Collective, Feels, 2005
Asa-Chang & Junray, Jun Ray Song Chang, 2002
Sir Richard Bishop, Improvika, 2004
Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips, Sankt Gerold Variations, 2000
Boards of Canada, Geogaddi, 2002
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004
Boredoms, Seadrum/House of Sun, 2004
Boris, Akuma no Uta, 2005
Bowerbirds, Hymns for a Dark Horse, 2007
Broadcast, The Future Crayon, 2006
Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People, 2002
Burial, Burial, 2006
Califone, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, 2003
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, 2006
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone, 2009
Chumbawumba, English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, 2003
Deerhoof, Reveille, 2002
Deerhoof, Apple O', 2003
Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity, 2007
Dizzee Rascal, Boy in Da Corner, 2003
Double Leopards, Halve Maen, 2003
Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet, 2002
Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft", 2001
Missy Elliott, Miss E…So Addictive, 2001
The Ex, Dizzy Spells, 2001
Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, 2003
Christine Fellows, Paper Anniversary, 2005
The For Carnation, The For Carnation, 2000
Fugazi, The Argument, 2001
Gang Gang Dance, God's Money, 2005
Geto Boys, The Foundation, 2004
Ghost, Hypnotic Underworld, 2004
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale, 2006
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Yanqui U.X.O., 2002
David Grubbs, The Spectrum Between, 2000
Merle Haggard, If I Could Only Fly, 2000
Herbert, Bodily Functions, 2001
High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings, 2004
Jackie-O Motherfucker, The Magick Fire Music, 2000
Jackie-O Motherfucker, Fig. 5, 2000
Jackie-O Motherfucker, Liberation, 2001
Philip Jeck, Stoke, 2002
Jesu, Conqueror, 2007
Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye, 2006
Labradford, fixed::context, 2000
Miranda Lambert, Kerosene, 2005
Love is All, Nine Times That Same Song, 2006
Low, Things We Lost In The Fire, 2001
Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, 2006
The Microphones, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, 2000
Mission of Burma, Obliterati, 2006
Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica, 2000
Juana Molina, Son, 2006
The Mountain Goats, The Coroner's Gambit, 2001
The Mountain Goats, All Hail West Texas, 2002
The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee, 2002
The National, Boxer, 2007
The Necks, Drive By, 2003
The Necks, Chemist, 2006
Alva Noto +Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vrioon, 2002
Om, Conference of the Birds, 2006
Jim O'Rourke, Insignificance, 2001
Pan*American, 360 Business/360 Bypass, 2000
Panda Bear, Person Pitch, 2007
William Parker Quartet, O'Neal's Porch, 2001
William Parker Clarinet Trio, Bob's Pink Cadillac, 2002
Pelt, Pearls from the River, 2003
Pinetop Seven, Bringing Home the Last Great Strike, 2000
Robert Plant, Dreamland, 2002
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, 2007
Polmo Polpo, Like Hearts Swelling, 2004
Radiohead, Kid A, 2000
Radiohead, Amnesiac, 2001
Scarface, The Fix, 2002
Shalabi Effect, The Trial of St. Orange, 2002
Shalabi Effect, Pink Abyss, 2004
Shellac, 1000 Hurts, 2000
Six Organs of Admittance, School of the Flower, 2005
Smog, Dongs of Sevotion, 2000
Smog, Supper, 2003
Smog, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, 2005
Songs: Ohia, Ghost Tropic, 2000
Songs: Ohia, Didn't It Rain, 2002
Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co., 2003
Sonic Youth, Murray Street, 2002
Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse, 2004
Sunburned Hand of the Man, Fire Escape, 2007
Supersilent, 6, 2003
Mia Doi Todd, Manzanita, 2005
Scott Tuma, The River 1234, 2003
US Maple, Acre Thrills, 2001
Vibracathedral Orchestra, Tuning to the Rooster, 2005
Volcano the Bear, The Idea of Wood, 2003
Gillian Welch, Soul Journey, 2003
Robert Wyatt, Cuckooland, 2003
Yo La Tengo, And then nothing turned itself inside-out, 2000

Friday, November 12, 2010

A captive audience

It was a beautiful day here in Baltimore yesterday, a day off from work for me (Veterans Day, you may have heard), so we went to the zoo. I often find myself in a melancholy mood when I'm at the zoo, especially on days when I have time to think, as I did yesterday, since it wasn't too crowded. It's the big cats prowling in their giant cages, back and forth, back and forth; the giraffes roaming about in their tiny yard, butting up against the back of a rounded wall of concrete; the chimps jumping about in their glassed-in fake forest, watching, watching; the zebras and ostriches and rhinos standing around; the elephants milling about in the sort of pathetic cement wading area, pushing a ball to and fro; the birds sitting under netting, flying from branch to branch.

I find animals fascinating, but zoos make me feel bad, always have. I thought about the efforts to breed them in captivity, how long it takes, why it has often taken so long.

On our way out yesterday, we stopped in at the polar bear area. They weren't up for entertaining. There was a brilliant white fox, sitting, watching us. I considered the area behind him, apparently the full expanse of his existence. As we left, there was the snow owl, two of them, under netting, also brilliantly white, with yellow owl eyes, also watching, but for what. I read the accompanying text, biological facts, reassuring, contained science. I was struck by the given life expectancy. In the wild: 9 years. In captivity: 28. Nineteen additional years of what? Would they say it was worth it if they could?

I thought about the trade-offs we make to live in the way we do, though the decisions have long since been made for us. We're told that we live in an advanced society. I find myself often declaiming about lost, pre-capitalist cultural forms and I am accused of romanticizing feudalism, or of downplaying the necessity of capitalism superseding feudalism. I am reminded of the benefits, the fruits we enjoy as a result of capitalism, improved health and leisure and longevity among them. Though, of course, not all of us enjoy them. I have to admit that I do; I enjoy enormous privileges, but I am not everybody; I also admit that I will not easily give them up, but I believe both that I will have to and that I ought to. And anyway, were our predecessors asked? Of course they were not.

We all know the famous line by Benjamin Franklin, often trotted out by liberals rightly decrying the latest panicked security response to some so-called terrorist activity or other: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But doesn't this describe our daily existence? Are we at liberty? Do we not trade it for some version of health and for illusory security simply as a matter of course? Are we not living in captivity ourselves? Wouldn't some of us trade many of those benefits for autonomy? For a more generalized, if lower-pitched, prosperity? In which we had a say? In which we were at least consulted? And how long will the benefits last? Are we justified in taking them for granted when others not only do not enjoy those benefits, but cannot? When the whole system in which we live is predicated on the relatively few enjoying the fruits of the many? What might it look like if it weren't?