This is the most OCD thing about me: since 2006 or so, my December/January/(sometimes February/March/April) habit has been to re-listen to every album I’ve acquired over the course of the year in alphabetical order and blurb each (last year’s marathon is here; the previous two years’ marathons are here; a few others are scattered about).
I went back and forth on whether I’d go through with it this year due to a few factors:
It’s a busy December/January, and I have an iffy record when it comes to timely completion as it is (I gave up on 2009 and ended up completing the write-ups in November 2010; I was finishing my MLIS that year).
I’ve listened to a load of music on Spotify and Grooveshark this year, which throws the notion of “acquisition” and “ownership” into question (that is, if I have an album saved as a playlist, should I include it?).
I’ve downloaded a lot of stray tracks and compilations this year.
So I’ve decided to set up the following criteria for myself:
iTunes only. Despite the fact that I’ve listened to a few excellent albums on Spotify a lot (Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972; Metronomy’s The English Riviera; Liturgy’s Aesthetica, among others) and should probably just shell out for them, it would just complicate matters to account for separate master lists; plus, I have representative tracks from most of those albums on iTunes.
To keep the listening steady, I’m not going to bother to cover every album individually. There’s usually been a huge lag between my marathon listening and marathon write-ups, which ends up making the whole thing less fun than it should be*. Each post will be more of an update of what I’ve listened to since the previous post; it’ll probably be a little improvisational. This will also let me talk up noteworthy non-album tracks.
So that’s what’s going to be happening here. Bear with me.
* Granted, this process is designed to be a little un-fun at times—I don’t tend to clean out my library until after the year’s over, so there’s plenty of stuff I didn’t like initially and probably won’t like any better on an additional listen. My decision to preview Lulu on Grooveshark is quite a comfort at the moment, though.
Adam Warrock - “Marvel vs. DC” (This Man… This Emcee)
iTunes tells me that I have 1,282 songs listed as 2011 releases (3 days, 12 hours, 7 minutes, 58 seconds). I’m about 30 songs in, and most of them have been by immensely prolific nerdcore artist Adam Warrock (long-time Internet friend of the blog, whom I finally met in person and saw perform this year). I believe he was initially uncomfortable with the label “nerdcore” for its potential limitations in subject matter, but he embraces it on the This Man… This Emcee EP (one of a number of 2011 Warrock releases, including a Firefly-inspired concept album), even celebrating it on “Nerd Corps.” Based on what I’ve heard from others in the genre, though, he might have been wise to initially distance himself. He’s far less content to thoughtlessly pile on the references and silly jokes than most; the pop culture references are vehicles for everything from racial politics (“Marvel vs. DC”) to familial relations (“Sad Ultron”).
Also in this batch: individual tracks by A.A. Bondy, Action Bronson, Adele (including the impossible-to-shake-but-why-would-you-want-to “Rolling in the Deep,” naturally), Agnes, Alexis Jordan, Algernon Cadwallader, and Amanda Palmer. Now at 34, three tracks deep into the new … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
The Antlers - “Putting the Dog to Sleep” (Burst Apart)
Made it 65 songs into my 1,282-song playlist today. This last batch included:
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s Tao of the Dead, a decent addition to their catalog. A fair bit less risky than the last two albums, but that pays off in fewer tracks to be skipped, if not a return to Source Tags and Codes quality.
"Which Side Are You On" by Ani DiFranco (whom I haven’t followed attentively since the late ’90s; I figured she’d have some luck with a protest song rewrite, but this is a mess)
Several tracks from Anna Calvi’s debut, which I’ve heard in full and appreciate, but wonder if the theatricality is just frosting on slightly underbaked songs.
The Antlers’ Burst Apart, one of my favorite albums of the year. Since “I Don’t Want Love” is getting plenty of attention on year-end lists, and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” was the single, I’m highlighting album closer “Putting the Dog Asleep” here. Burst Apart has been rightly celebrated for its fusion of atmospherics and soul, but it’s the lyrics to this song that put it over. The surefire way to lose an audience, it’s said, is to kill off a child or a dog, so you’ve got to hand it to Peter Silberman for using the imagery of a wounded pet to power this song about human forgiveness and reconciliation. What gets me about this metaphor is that there’s no magnification. Troubled relationships and dying pets are both grounded in the mundane; these things happen all the time. One might just as easily write a song about a dying pet using the imagery of a sad love song. The modest scope of the analogy makes Silberman’s subject all the more relatable.
A couple of A$AP Rocky songs. This was a first listen on both.
The first few tracks of Astronautalis’ This is Our Science.
103 songs out of 1,282 down. Last night’s and this morning’s batch included:
The rest of Astronautalis’ This Is Our Science. If it’s Minneapolis-based hip-hop (and Astronautalis is, at least in part), chances are I heard about it through this gentleman. I found This Is Our Science a little off-putting initially, due to some heavy guitars and histrionics that threatened to slide into Linkin Park territory (not a plus in my book; your mileage may vary, of course). Ultimately, I was impressed by the mutability of both music and vocal performance (the Modest Mouse influence was certainly unexpected, and I think I even detected some Morrissey in the vocals in a few spots), even if it’s not something I’ll return to a lot.
Atlas Sound’s Parallax. Since initially (and wrongly) dismissing Deerhunter’s Cryptograms a few years ago, I’ve come to appreciate Bradford Cox’s music in both Deerhunter and in (as?) Atlas Sound, but I’m not sure I’ll ever draw the profound emotional meaning from it that other do. Like Microcastle and Halcyon Digest, Parallax is sonically compelling enough, but Cox distances himself through vocal effects and lyrical abstraction to the point that I can’t help but oblige him that distance and focus on the textural stuff. As far as that goes, I prefer Parallax to most of the other Atlas Sound releases for its variety and similarity to the more fleshed-out Deerhunter recordings. But I simultaneously feel like I’m missing out on the emotional, confessional nature of his work.
"Lose It" by Austra. Like Florence and the Machine without the pomp. (Note: Needs more pomp.)
Azaelia Banks’ “212.” I only managed to listen to it once this time, which may be a first (especially impressive, since Raina's sitting right next to me and she has an even greater “212” replay problem). The only other track I've heard by Banks is “Runnin'” (with Lunice), which isn't a quarter as good.
Battles’ Gloss Drop (mostly, at least; it’ll be done by the time I finish this post). On earlier listens, I was more fixated on the tracks with guest vocals. “Ice Cream“‘s still my favorite, if only for how it channels all of that proggy, jazzy instrumental prowess into a song poppy enough to make it into a commercial, if not make it on commercial radio. But this listen is bringing out the virtues of the slightly more complicated instrumental tracks. The streamlining from the math rock moments on Mirrored doesn’t just make for tighter, more accessible compositions; it actually brings out their technical competence via a funky, soulful musicality. Drummer envy for John Stanier persists.
As mentioned here, my liking of the new Atlas Sound album hinges mostly on music, not lyrics, which may be why “Mona Lisa” is a standout for me. I have no idea what Cox is on about, but that’s a killer hook.
There seem to be a few discrepancies between the 2011 playlist on my iPod and iTunes library at home (despite unchecking some entries strategically, as explained below), so there’s some number shifting at play (the 1,282 count I was going with is more like 1,347). Not that anyone cares except me and my long-suffering wife, who gamely endured with me today:
The first disc of The Beach Boys’ The Smile Sessions box set (I unchecked the rest of the set since an entire disc of “Good Vibrations” seemed like overkill even for the marathon, and this is already an arguable inclusion due to its archival status). Raina's not a huge fan of Smile—as we discovered when Brian Wilson released his re-recording a few years ago—partially because, considering the context of Wilson’s mental health problems, the lyrics can scan as uncomfortably childlike and detached. As she explained it to me once, it’s as if an imbalanced person is attempting to relate to others with a mistaken idea of what “normal people talk about” (and, yeah, this is with the awareness that Van Dyke Parks co-wrote them, but it’s still essentially Wilson’s baby). Its musical virtues overcome these problems, IMO, but it’s hard to ignore this reading once you get it in your head. Musical heresy, perhaps, but I prefer some of these songs out of this context, mixed with later, unrelated material on 20/20, Surf’s Up, etc.
Beady Eye’s Different Gear, Still Speeding. I’ll have more to say about the Noel Gallagher-less Oasis later, but I’ll leave it at “not good” for now.
One Beirut track. I’m lukewarm on Beirut generally, and I’ve not been swayed.
The Belle Brigade’s self-titled debut. Tony saw these folks live recently and went on a brief, but enthusiastic, campaign to make their greatness known. I was dismissive, since there’s virtually nothing original about their sound, and the album has its share of sound-alike songs. But it’s grown on me over the last few listens. It owes an undeniable debt to the first two Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac albums, but unlike other recent attempts to resurrect this sound (say, Midlake’s “Roscoe”), it’s light on Nicks mystery and heavy on Buckingham shuffle and harmonizing (“Monday Morning,” etc.).
A Best Coast track that sounds like a Best Coast track. Anxious to hear what Jon Brion can do with their sound.
Beyoncé’s 4 up to “Best Thing I Never Had.” So as not to review half an album, I’ll hold off on comment until my next update.
The Belle Brigade - “Belt of Orion” (The Belle Brigade)
As discussed here. (Incidentally, I’m hyper-aware of the crucial difference between studio recordings and live performances, but live stuff is simply more interesting to watch than a static album cover, so that’s what you get.)
Skipped an update due to this (and am only getting around to it now after an eye doctor appointment that has my eyeballs thoroughly dilated, so excuse any typos), but the alphabetical listening continues. Between yesterday and today, I re-listened to:
Beyoncé’s 4. Mainstream pop is out of my wheelhouse to the point that this is the first Beyoncé album I’ve heard in full. It’s good! I’d expected a lot more filler, and while it’s far from airtight, even the weaker tracks sound like missteps rather than out-and-out afterthoughts. I may never come to appreciate the key-jumping “ooh”s on “1+1” or the lack of added value to the Major Lazer hook on “Run the World (Girls)”, but they at least ensure against boredom. As for the good stuff, “End of Time” and “Love on Top” are catchy enough to overcome the aversion I’d otherwise have to some fairly obvious ’80s nostalgia-courting (the latter evoking ’60s nostalgia from the ’80s). “Best Thing I Never Had” manages to balance soulful grandeur with earthbound colloquialism (“I bet it sucks to be you right now”). Possibly against my better instincts about what constitutes “a good song,” however, I find myself drawn most to “Countdown.”
In my favorite critical piece on the song, Katherine wrote: “The hooks are fast and flashy enough to whoosh past these issues [lack of dynamics, lyrical shortcomings], of course, but that’s not a solution so much as sleight of hand. ‘Countdown’ moves so quickly that you don’t even notice how thinly its parts are connected and in how few places.”
Oddly, I had this exact complaint about “Single Ladies,” but it bothers me less here. One key difference is how form serves lyric here. There’s an irrational love driving “Countdown” (“My girls can’t tell me nothin’ - I’m gone in the brain…”), so the fact that it functions as a set of pop hooks jammed together with whiplash-quick transitions makes more sense here than on the calculating, empowerment-advocating “Single Ladies.” On top of this, I’ve been a Naked City fan from way back and some of my favorite New Pornographers songs are essentially series of choruses stitched together, so jarring juxtapositions are, unlike mainstream pop, totally in my wheelhouse.
A song called “Parrots” by L.A. band Big Moves. There’s a lot of Dismemberment Plan and Ben Folds Five in their DNA, which should be catnip for me, but the vocalist has some trouble keeping up with the admittedly complicated changes.
The Eleventh Hour, a good album by Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones. I recently reviewed it for PopMatters, and my opinion hasn’t changed much since the write-up.
A track each by Björk and the Black Keys from their respective new albums, neither of which I’ve heard in full. No big surprises. The Björk track, “Cosmogony,” doesn’t impress as much as “Crystalline,” the other song I’ve heard from her new one.
Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, which I’ve written about relatively recently. I’ve probably listened to this album more than any other this year, and I’ve tried doing so with the critical backlash in mind. Naturally, I can’t counter assertions that it’s simply boring (a criticism that carries little descriptive weight; well-discussed recently by Steven Hyden and Mark Richardson, among others), but the most persistent anti-Bon Iver remarks seem driven by annoyance at Justin Vernon’s lost-in-the-woods “narrative” or by his supposed steadfast adherence to ’80s soft rock that emerges primarily on a single track (and pretty thoroughly tweaked, all things considered). Not only are these two over-discussed facets of Vernon directly contradictory—you can’t thoroughly milk a bearded backwoods persona while indulging in big, atmospheric production techniques—but they have significance in principle only; they’re tangential to the music. A reaction to Bon Iver based on these criteria suggests more about personal preoccupations with rustic backstories* and/or ’80s retro culture** than they do about the music.
* I haven’t researched the matter thoroughly, but I’m curious how many of the writers hung up on the “freezing cabin in the wilderness” narrative are from coastal cities or warmer climates. Some critiques I’ve read imply that Vernon’s story is exaggerated or unbelievable; as a midwesterner who’s seen what “the middle of nowhere” looks like in winter, it doesn’t ring false at all to me.
** I’m critical of ’80s retro culture. But Vernon dips his toes where other acclaimed acts dive right in.
Mostly individual songs today, so this’ll be a little less detailed:
Forgot to add Blitzen Trapper’s American Goldwing to yesterday’s listening. With the exception of some of the stuff on Furr, these guys tend to sound profoundly uncomfortable with whatever they might sound like naturally. On Wild Mountain Nation, it sounded like they were trying to inject too much quirk into their roots rock. Then they scaled back on the quirk on Furr with pretty good results (although even Furr had them unconvincingly attempting murder balladry), but then felt the need to pepper their sound with metal and hard rock while simultaneously coming down harder on the Americana affectations, including a twang that practically registers as parody.
Cass McCombs’ Humor Risk. I got this after becoming fond of “County Line,” a song from his other album of 2011, Wit’s End, which I haven’t heard in full. From what I hear, it’s the stronger of the two, which doesn’t surprise me. To my mind, Humor Risk falters most when McCombs goes for steady mid-tempo rock, and “County Line” suggests more of a moody, country approach (although the folk-pop “Robin Egg Blue” is the highlight on Wit’s End).
Individual songs by The Book of Mormon original cast, Boris, Britney Spears, Boris, Burial, Butch Walker, Cam’ron and Vado, Centro-Matic (I need to hear more from these guys), Ceremony, Chad VanGaalen, Charles Bradley (a great soul version of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” from a SPIN compilation), Charlotte Gainsbourg, Cherry Cherry Boom Boom (an exuberant Magnetic Fields cover), Circle of Ouroborus, Clams Casino, Cliffie Swan (Olivia Newton-John’s influence perseveres?), three by Cloud Nothings (I still have no idea what they sound like), two hilariously and kind of magnificently OTT songs by Cold Cave, Coldplay’s bid to sound kind of like the Arcade Fire, one of College’s songs from the Drive OST, and a song each by Comet Gains, Country Mice, and Craft Spells.
The first half of Craig Wedren’s WAND. More on that tomorrow.
One of the rules I’ve set up for myself is that the marathon is ongoing, which means no repeat listens, thus some of these entries are going to feature shallower treatment than others. Since I spent most of today’s listening while editing and the artists kind of whipped by, this is all I’ve got.