Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Till The World Ends - Top Ten Albums Of 2011

These albums were inspiring to me in one way or another. Or they surprised me. Or they made me want to paint a painting. Many of them simultaneously made me hopeful for the future AND fear the future. I thought a lot about the end of the world in 2011. I didn’t obsess over it too much, and I’m not completely paranoid, but I do honestly believe that we are a little bit doomed. The national obsession with zombies, hoarding, scavenging, canning, pickling, brewing, fermenting, trapping, smoking, and self-sustaining local yokelism is half the story. Devastating storms – a foot of snow in our yard in October and a near-miss tornado that wrecked a good portion of Springfield and massive hurricane flooding all around us this summer – and general atmospheric unease abounded. I’m pretty sure I suffered from some sort of outdoor allergy all 12 months of the year this year. And, I also feel like people – not just me and mine – get sicker for longer periods of time now. Am I crazy? For years – okay, maybe I obsess a little bit – I’ve envisioned a world where people have low levels of environmental sickness 24/7. Kinda like in my fave movie Safe, only for real. The subtle - but real - change in the earth’s temperature has to be doing SOMETHING to us, no? Throw in the economy and national and world unrest and people occupying stuff and the surreal public/political atmosphere of avoidance and denial and…well, you know. Kaboom. The icing on the cake – even though it was of minor significance – was a lifestyle-y article I saw in the New Yorker this year on the fad of “foraging”. Foraging! Something the people on this planet have done FOR LITERALLY EVER. Since the beginning of time, to this very day, for survival! And, while I did shrug it off as just another foraging while Rome burns puff piece written for people who would never ever ever ever have to forage for anything as long as they live, it did make me think. Maybe even the rarefied world of the New Yorker was catching the same bug that everyone else was catching. Maybe there really is this current collective unconscious desire for people to tap into ancient – and very dusty – survival skills. Maybe, somewhere in the back of our minds, we know that things could get really ugly in our lifetime. Not in some futuristic sci-fi zombie-plagued universe, but in our own not-so-distant future. And maybe the smart people feel this first. Like me and people who read the New Yorker. Hahaha! And, also, the clever and canny and resourceful among us! Like people who watch Storage Wars, pickle their own vegetables, and who are learning how to barter and dig for gold in America’s refuse-filled attics and basements and backyard sheds. People are learning how to dig again. I don’t honestly know if this is connected with the planet as future wasteland or not, but they are learning to dig and they are getting better at it and they really want to be more self-sufficient. Probably not a bad way to be no matter what the climate is like. And, hey, if you learn how to darn your socks then you don’t have to get in your goddamn car and go through all that goddamn traffic just to get to some godforsaken store in the middle of friggin’ nowhere to buy new ones. And there is definitely something to say for that.
Music means as much to me now as it ever has. It might even mean more to me now. I’m a much more serious listener than I used to be. I’m listening for clues! When I was younger, I used music for strength and oblivion and for all kinds of anti-social purposes. Now, I don’t know, I’m just different. Now, I see music as dialogue. I see it as conversation and a search for meaning in sound. I’m interested in HOW people do what they do and how they get to where they want to get. I’m interested in the journey. In other people’s journeys. That’s a new one for me. I care about other people! Awww. It would happen right before the end of the world. But better late than never. This, unfortunately, makes me much less effective as a “critic”. I’m really not interested in slamming people who get it “wrong”. Or what I think of as wrong. I really just want to seek out those people who are…seeking? Searching? People who are combining sounds in unorthodox ways, but also people who are using the past and past tradition in interesting ways and who are adding their patch to the quilt of…uh…the family of man…or something. I think that adding your name to the wall is a noble thing! Just a scratch or a symbol. No big deal. You were here. You lived. You did your thing. You loved people and things. You were a part of something bigger than you. And that something had never heard of Mitt Romney.
These albums are in no order. I’m all for no order in 2011.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island) I HATE calling things “masterpieces”. I really do. It’s too fussy for me. I need a better word. But this album said it all for me and it said it in a way that I couldn’t think of a way to approve upon. This album feels finished in the way that a great painting or great movie feels finished. It’s a work of art. I’ll just say that. And it’s a real album-lover’s album, so, the old fogey in me enjoys that. It’s fine and made with great care and craft and I honestly didn’t know that PJ Harvey was gonna be one of the most exciting artists of, like, the last 30 years! How could I know? Who knew? PJ Harvey, Sade, and Kate Bush. Three of the most creative pop forces of the 21st century. I didn’t see that coming, although I suppose I should have. I still haven’t heard the new Kate Bush. I’m sure it’s wonderful. Latter-day Kate feels kinda hermetically-sealed to me in a way though. Same with Sade. Even though I think they are both great. PJ isn’t as hung up on perfectionism. This album was all about war. I own LOTS of albums that are all about war. This felt personal. It made me want to cry. So beautiful. She is really something. AND, I feel like she is really onto something. Her path is one of infinite possibilities. Wherever her imagination takes her.
William Fowler Collins/Gog – Malpais (Utech) Mike Bjella as Gog made one of my favorite records of the last, I don’t know, ten years? Twenty years? Who knows. It really struck me hard in a way that a lot of new or modern stuff, even stuff I really like, doesn’t. I played it for others. Loudly. I wanted to share it. I wanted to shake the rafters with it. The album was entitled *Mist from the Random More*. I think you can still buy it from Utech Records and you really really should. It’s a “heavy” record, but, like a lot of stuff released on my fave Utech label, “heavy” is just one ingredient. Heavy is a means on the Gog album and not the end. Distortion and effects and pedals and all that good stuff, all the stuff that made rock & roll the freedom force that it was and can be, is just one tool in the old toolbox for a lot of modern rock-informed and rock-obsessed and rock-derived artists out there now fighting the good fight. These are smart dudes. William Fowler Collins, Mike Bjella, to name two. There are lots of smart people out there. People looking beyond their immediate influences of punk and metal and rock and whatever else they grew up with and using the spirit of those things to create a new…something! I don’t dare name it. I don’t want to. I’ll let Simon Reynolds name it. I should just call it rock. Because I don’t like so much modern stuff that calls itself rock, I should name the stuff I do like rock. I should take back the name and the night. Hey, have you heard the new Gog album? Best rock album I’ve heard in ages. The whole post-metalambientdarkdronesoundscapeblahblahblah just won’t DO. This music deserves better. But maybe it just doesn’t matter. I always liked how – a long time ago – the metal band Origin called their music Core-core. As in the earth’s core. That’s a little more like it. And that’s a little more like Malpais. Did I mention how much I loved the William Fowler Collins album Perdition Hill Radio that came out a few years back? The desert drift on that album was something to behold. Malpais is the best of two epic worlds. And, you guessed it, it makes me think about the end of the world. But it also makes me think of what new worlds would be like. And it makes me appreciate the tiny world that I currently inhabit. That’s another new thing for me. I used to listen to BIG music to make myself feel bigger. Now I like BIG music because it reminds me of how fragile everything is. Of how finite our time here is. Dude, I’m learning here!
Architeuthis Rex – Urania (Utech) Again with the Utech. Sometimes a label or a director or a writer hits you in just the right way. And they do it again and again. It’s like they are making records/movies/books for you and you alone. Although, I hope that isn’t the case with Utech, because they aren’t making a dime off of me. The mastermind behind the label, Keith Utech, is kind enough to send me CDs for my small column in Decibel Magazine, and I’m REALLY thankful that he does. Keith has an amazing eye and an amazing ear and this seems rare nowadays. I feel evangelical about the label, and this is also rare these days! Urania is a perfect example of what this label does to me. It evokes feelings in me that I didn’t know I even wanted to evoke. It very definitely – without the aid of chemicals – puts me in a strange space and place and this space and place is different every time I play the album. It’s magic! I’ve played this album twice in the middle of the day in my record store, and both times I completely forgot where I was. I was dreaming and I was wide awake. Whoooo…I don’t know what else there is to say. I am a fan of magic music that does magic things. That’s all you need to know. This album is a wonderful – and sometimes unsettling, depending on your mood – experience.
Necro Deathmort – Music of Bleak Origin (Distraction)
I was a really big fan of the first Necro Deathmort album entitled *This Beat Is Necrotronic*. Their second album is just as addictive to me. This album is pure pleasure. Massive, and I mean MASSIVE, beats combined with just as massive doom metal guitar riffs and a wonderful sense of space and dynamics creates pure Scott crack. This album is a natural progression from other similar Scott crack outfits like New Kingdom, Dalek, assorted Justin Broadrick projects, extreme jeep beat rap, and old Young Gods records.
Britney Spears – Femme Fatale (Jive) I probably heard this album more than any other 2011 album. By a mile. For my son Cyrus’s 6th birthday, I bought him this (because he likes the ladies and I also figured Britney was good for the catchy kid stuff), the first Ramones album (He didn’t really care for it. I’ll give him a few years. Wishful hipster dad thinking.), and, cuz, I don’t know why, the new Beastie Boys album (older son Rufus liked this more). Anyway, Cyrus REALLY liked this one. He played it every day for months, and it was the first time he had ever done this with an album. It didn’t take long for the entire family to become Britney’s Euro-dance slaves. We went to Six Flags here in Massachusetts this summer and we had a great time. The highlight was when we waited in a mile-long line and then followed hundreds of kids single-file into the woods to see teen t.v. sensation Miranda Cosgrove. I won’t say that the experience was profound or enlightening, but the sight of all those kids screaming and dancing along to their hero in a clearing in the woods was memorable to say the least. Miranda covers Britney’s “Till The World Ends” in concert, and, needless to say, Britney’s anthem was THE soundtrack for all of my millennialism and various zombie-induced fears. It’s way better than “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” by Ultravox, too, although I still give the nostalgic end of the world edge to “Shiny Shiny” by my boyhood faves Haysi Fantayzee
Mika Vainio – Life (…It Eats You Up) (Editions Mego) I didn’t hear a ton of metal albums that I loved this year, so it seems fitting that one of my favorite metal albums would be a completely non-metal album made by a dude who probably doesn’t listen to a ton of the metallic stuff on his own. Mika is one half of Pan Sonic, and I’ve always been a respectful fan of what he’s done with his/their minimal electronic bottomless pit of a sound, but I can’t say that I was prepared for this album when I got it. I haven’t really followed his solo output (but I’ll definitely seek out what I’ve missed), and Life hit me like a brick or three as soon as I put it on. Man, what a record! It’s guitar-based, but completely fucked with and more electronic-sounding in general. But heavy is heavy, and this album delivers in a big way. I can’t believe that I just wrote that this album “delivers in a big way”. This album should be on every metal year-end list in the world, but I’d have to pay metal writers to listen to it. I wouldn’t have to pay them much though. They’re used to peanuts.
Bunwinkies – Map of Our New Constellations (Feeding Tube) This is where I go into old fogey hyperdrive. I checked out Pitchfork’s top 50 of 2011 and it did impress me with its consistent artistic vision, I only wish it was a vision I shared. I’ve got no bone to pick with Pitchfork. I have no desire to review their reviews. They have amazing writers working for Pitchfork! Some of the best music writers I know of. But the music they champion makes me feel very old and out of it. Not Beyonce and Jay-Z obviously, or crowd favorites PJ Harvey or Kate Bush, but so many of the internet bedroom phenoms that set the blogs ablaze and leave me cold. So interchangeable and ephemeral to me. I find myself questioning their desire and their own belief in the music they make. I should NEVER think about those things when listening to someone making music. So many internet/computer-based indie/undie people seem so halfhearted about their sounds. The wavering weak-kneed shoegazer electronica can only work properly if you yourself are completely wavering and weak-kneed. Not that I have anything against style as product, nothing could be further from the truth. But you have to be really really good at making the product for me to buy it. I’m a child of the 80’s, a decade often ridiculed for its one hit wonder haircut ephemera, but so much of that seemingly cliché and hair today gone tomorrow music has incredible legs. It was MADE really well. Which is obvious, because people keep ripping it off left and right. A Flock of Seagulls are laughed at by casual VH1 viewers for their aerodynamic haircuts, but this was a flash in the pan band that honed their VERY SPECIFIC sound over four albums and loads of singles and b-sides. They worked for those haircuts. Maybe I just need to see more elbow grease. If I want strange synth sounds and woozy atmospherics, I turn to any number of capable dance music artists or dedicated electronic musicians. Indie rock nation turning on to Goblin soundtracks or forgotten new age records – for today or this minute – seems almost like treason against the state. These are young people who are trying to slowly bore and or annoy older people to death. But not with violence or bloodshed. With home-schooled innocence and entitlement. Blah. It makes me want to wash my mouth out with dirt. So bland. So bleached of meaning or reason. Someone could probably write a good term paper about Panda Bear’s lack of meaning or reason though. So, that’s something. I also get such ear fatigue from software mopes and I end up missing actual recording studios. Or even actual lo-fi live room dynamics. Albums recorded on boomboxes or a Walkman or Realistic brand tape recorders. I miss the air. Actual air. Bunwinkies recorded their hushed new album in a real studio, but I’ve seen them live, and they would have sounded good in almost any room. Not to say that their album doesn’t sound great BECAUSE it was recorded properly in analog in a good room with a good like-minded producer, it does, but their live vibe is such that they can make any space sound Bunwinkies-esque. I’m a fan. This is my token “pretty as a picture” year-end pick. The album that takes absolutely no time to fall for. I’m not an expert on the past decade’s indie folk-rock heyday, I liked what I liked. An Espers album here, a Vetiver album there. Bunwinkies are in that same zone for me. They are really good at making this kind of music and pushing and shoving to the front of the line to make you aware of how good they are at it would never occur to them. I find that refreshing! But they aren’t kids. Maybe that makes a difference. Their drummer was in The Supreme Dicks! Those guys are as old as the hills! Maybe it would also make a difference if Panda Bear and his ilk WERE actual kids instead of blasé 20-somethings and even 30-somethings. Maybe I need to hear high school kids making fucked up and woozy chillwavetronica. Maybe they would tap into some of the energy I feel is lacking from some of the current intercrit faves. Or maybe they would just rather start bad screamo bands. Who can say? Kids these days.
Sky Burial – Aegri Somnia (Utech) Yet another example of the new…something. I don’t know what you call a combination of dread and elation. The Germans probably have a word for it. I’ll just call it church. If you google “Sky Burial” you get to see pictures of dead people on top of mountains in Tibet. Just so you know. On Aegri Somnia, Sky Burial’s Michael Page meets up with Hawkwind’s Nik Turner for an atmospheric saxy blowout that should have been played at that royal wedding that everyone was so excited about. THIS is the album that makes me want to paint a painting. Or write a poem about royal weddings and saxophones and zombies. The best among us don’t paint cathedral ceilings anymore, and that’s okay. Fuck a cathedral. May they all tumble to the ground. They promised us the highest of highs and all we got were corpses!
Midnight – Satanic Royalty (Hells Headbangers) Is it true that they wouldn’t invite Kate Middleton’s uncle, Cronos of Venom, to the royal wedding? Is it true??? A pox on their house! A thousand curses for a thousand years on the House of Windsor! Grrrrrrrr. This album helps if you are feeling slighted and bitter. It’s majestic in its way. And all the royalty I will ever need.
Gnaw Their Tongues – Per Flagellum Sanguemque, Tenebras Veneramus (Crucial Blast) I thought I was dying this year. For real! My doctor even set up appointments and CT scans and all that for me and while I was waiting to find out how long I had to live, I brooded and panicked and got scared and felt sorry for myself and I would hear Maria and the kids playing and laughing upstairs without me and I would pretend that I was listening from the grave and that I could never go to them. I could only listen as they lived their lives without me. And, hey, why were they laughing and having such a great time!? Why weren’t they weeping and wailing and lamenting their beloved Scott!? Oh, right, I wasn’t dead yet. It was depressing. I got depressed. I felt really sick and miserable. It turned out that I wasn’t dying. I immediately felt better! Funny how that happens. Listening to the new Gnaw Their Tongues album kinda reminds me of how I felt when I thought I was dying. And when I turn it off I’m all better again. It’s not like it’s the greatest album ever made, but I admire the TOTALITY of it. Like old Swans, or other past all-consuming and enveloping artists who want you to succumb to their bleak vision of art and life, Gnaw Their Tongues make you swim in their awfulness. And that is something that 99.9% of the planet probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with. And that’s another reason why I enjoy that kind of sound! I like that most of the world wouldn’t want to go there. Why is this? It’s not like joining a secret club with secret handshakes. There is no physical space to inhabit. But there is the idea in the back of your head that you can go places – psychic places – and other people won’t follow you there. Mitt Romney will never find me there! He will never in a million years put himself through an album like this. And I like knowing that. Isn’t that weird? Part of me is ready for the end of the world. And, as my imaginary near-death experience tells me, part of me REALLY isn’t. The part that is ready feels prepared to batten down the hatches. To keep the people that I love close and “go local” in a very big way. My distrust in the decisions of others who are far away from me and who don’t know me grows and grows. But I still take solace and comfort and inspiration from the good work of others. People far away. People who don’t know me. I don’t really want to, but I might have to start praying. It might not be much, but it’s all I can think of to do. (I’d like to pray to Jiddu Krishnamurti, but he wouldn’t have appreciated it. So, I’m thinking of praying to great American arranger, musician, composer, and band-leader Gil Evans. He’s as close to Krishnamurti as I’m gonna get.) People need help. This was a crazy year! And I felt pretty crazy thinking about it all. The music helped though. It always helps.


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