These Chances to Turn Things Around
508 · 15 January 07
Mew: And the Glass Handed Kites
I was surprised by plenty this year, but maybe startled only by this. Fiorella Terenzi once made a record by literally transposing radio-telescopy into the audio spectrum, and it sounded like no answer to anything I ever asked space. Mew, to me, come closer, both to an astro-geometer's Aeolian harp and to drawing in the human lines that place our projections of character among the waves and orbits and maths. This shimmery, helixing, coruscating record could be a fractal inversion of Tears for Fears, or a romantic naturalist's walking tour through Björk's private basement railroad-village cargo-cult invocation of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, or a translation from Sigur Rós irreproducible idiom, with more cadence than coherence, into a compromise between timpanic swells and square-rooted meters that might mediate between the Meat Puppets and Yes. I liked a lot of records this year, but only this one made me feel so much like listening to it was teaching me a new way in which people can be astonishing, and thus astonished.
Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
Muse, conversely, made me feel like I was again some numberless age of discovery, like I am still and always the right age, hopelessly and vindicatingly, for sheer and deliberate magnificence. Anyone can play guitar like Radiohead, but not even Radiohead understood this well how to reach back to Rush and Queen and Mahler and Mussorgsky. Even I don't always understand why I think those of us clinging to this planet will manage to avoid scraping ourselves off of it, but this to me is exactly a record of our resourcefulness and potential. Our complexities so often exceed our control that simplification is always safer, and usually more successfully profound, but this is not a function of the physics of truth. Some of the good truths are simple, but some of the great ones are greatest precisely in their intricacy. This is the best great record in years, and a triumphant reminder that there are better modes of maximalist professionalism than focus-group data-mining and zen-meticulous mud-polishing.
Damone: Out Here All Night
But some of the great truths are simple, too. We don't always have to understand them, sometimes we just have to let them sweep us away. Sometimes the way to let them sweep us away is to stop trying to understand them, at least for a second. My unborn daughter is almost closer to Noelle Leblanc's age than I am. I can't yet even quite grasp concepts as mundane as the idea that she'll eventually be old enough to wear "outfits" or develop irrational textural ice-cream preferences, and I'm under no real illusion that the sound of her jubilation at her independence, by the time she's old enough for that, has any meaningful chance of hitting the same zero-intercepts on the trend cycle as the ones I've exulted in personally or vicariously. She's bound to like something I play for her, but it's unlikely to be any specific thing I hope for, so it probably won't be this. Right now Damone sounds to me like what it would be like to be me, that young, now, but my daughter won't be me, won't be that young until she's much older, and so it probably won't sound like this to her. But I can play this shameless record of perspectiveless, groundless, charge-overflowed joy-as-anger and remember, at least, both what freedom first feels like, and how the power of the feeling lies in still remembering how it feels after you come to understand that it wasn't your parents or your childhood you were actually being freed from.
Stars of Track and Field: Centuries Before Love and War
Nothing makes me feel older, at the moment, and I include imminent parenthood in that "nothing", than buying CDs. The physical ritual of music-buying is obsolete and irrevivable, held over only briefly for the sake of some isolated nostalgia and small contingencies of storage capacity. I bought fewer CDs than ever, this year, and downloaded more music in files. All the record stores are gone from here but one, and my trips there feel like vastly muted versions of good days with a dying friend. I know that files are better, and that information is no less true to itself without plastic, but you don't love your friends for their white-cell counts, or miss them less on the days when you weren't going to see them anyway. It will hurt me to give up holding records in my hand, not because the physical objects themselves have important inherent virtues, but because it has just always been possible to hold them.
So I am surprised, actually, to note that this is the only entry on my whole list for which I cannot hold an object. It's still due to be materialized sometime in 2007, but it's way too idiotic and painful to race inexplicably-deferred release-dates against a rapidly disappearing medium, so I bought the iTunes edition months ago, and what the record company thinks they're accomplishing by pretending the record isn't "out" yet, I haven't the slightest idea. There's no "out" in here anymore. Stars of Track and Field sound like Red House Painters catharsis texture-mapped onto glittery Lali Puna wire-frames, and neither catharsis nor frameworks need sleeves or frames or plastic or paper. I'll miss these objects, but that doesn't mean they matter. I loved my gatefold LPs, and my velum CD booklets and my boxed sets, but if I ever get them out and do hold them in my hand, it's only because there's music inside them. Nothing else was ever important. I'm not fighting, I'm just sad. I'm not crying, I'm just listening to beautiful sad songs.
Mono: You Are There
I'm short on Japanese pop, this year, not because I didn't hear or love any, but because I was always a little behind, and most of my 2006 favorites came out in 2005. You'd be unlikely to guess that surgingly cinematic Japanese instrumental noise-trio Mono are of any particular nationality, never mind Japanese, and they only intermittently qualify as rock, and come nowhere near pop. My Japanese language skills are still only improving slowly, and as A Story of Floating Weeds just reminded me, even wordlessness is sometimes beyond them, but when the wordlessness is manifest in textural soundscapes evolving and exploding like emotional meteorology, as opposed to cultural subtleties of 1930s Japanese housewear, I'm fluent enough to forget to breathe.
Thom Yorke: The Eraser
I have so little idea whether I'm going to like any new Radiohead-related thing anymore that even my expectations now fluctuate more or less at random. I think this may mean that I believe they are genuinely important. I don't think there is any other band I have lost and found again as many times, maybe almost as many times as they've made records. Yorke's solo album isn't a Radiohead record, but if the next Radiohead album had sounded exactly like this, I doubt it would have surprised me any more than anything else, so the difference isn't subjectively meaningful. And yet, calling it a solo album changes at least what I do with what I hear, and possibly what I hear. Postulate that this minimal mechanismic haunting is an isolated element of what Radiohead has always sounded like, one of the vectors that, if we could decompose them into the proper orthogonal dimensions, give the equations behind a disciplined emotional progress that only seems random because we're so used to older and duller axes.
Delays: You See Colours
Joy Division and Wire were critical components of New Wave, but so too were a-ha and Yaz and early Talk Talk, and maybe evidence suggests that reconstructing what made "New" feel glorious and weightless is harder and just as precious as remembering how we learned to reabsorb punk's venom. It isn't too late to wonder what could it have sounded like to combine the Communards and the Comsat Angels.
James Dean Bradfield: The Great Western
Manic Street Preachers didn't even try to make an album in 2006, but are my overwhelming band of the year anyway, omnipresent in my iTunes b-side random-walks, and their own anniversary introspection, and James and Nicky's solo albums. Nicky's I Killed the Zeitgeist has more of their old corrosively para-coherent political intensity, but dissent is a cheaper commodity than self-forgiveness, and The Great Western rings and soars like the beginning of the long-delayed and necessary inventory of what Everything Must Go wasn't yet ready to relinquish.
The Cardigans: Super Extra Gravity
It remains unwise to bet on enduring depth from bands you first fall in love with for re-sculpting Black Sabbath in cotton candy, but it's a rare great idea that wasn't ever unwise, and the Cardigans have slowly iterated those opposing impulses towards an uncannily unforced elegance that spins Cowboy Junkies' hushed poise into Sleeper's seductive melancholy.
Hundred Reasons: Kill Your Own
If Kurt Cobain had stayed alive, would churning-pummeling-shouting still have come to be so tantamount to a stylistic default? I want to believe it wouldn't have, that some part of the damage of his suicide is the arrested indelibility of a particular stunted grammar for helplessness and loss. It has become hard to put those qualities to other purposes. Alive, he might have carried us through them, and by now we might have enough distance to recognize the difference between stasis and return. And thus it might be less thankless to try explain to a forever half-wrecked city that it still hasn't chosen between self-destruction and rebirth.
Belinda: "Bella Traición" (from Utopía)
Meat Loaf: "What About Love" (from Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose)
The difference between redemptively trivial and plaintively profound is, in our best moments, just a matter of forgetting everything we don't believe; and you can't truly believe anything you can't build from pieces; and it shouldn't take atheism to see that the Tower of Babel is a fable not of heretic hubris but of how instinctively it is possible to agree.
Killers: "When You Were Young" (from Sam's Town)
Rock Kills Kid: "Hideaway" (from Are You Nervous?)
So we learn to write summer anthems for global warming,
Venus Hum: "Yes and No" (from The Colors in the Wheel)
Charlotte Martin: "Four Walls" (from Stromata)
and machine-truces by which the machines have to want to abide,
Rainer Maria: "Catastrophe" (from Catastrophe Keeps Us Together)
The Loud Family and Anton Barbeau: "Mavis of Maybelline Towers" (from What If It Works?)
and that catastrophe is less a failure of our architecture than its ultimate expression.
Wilderness: "Beautiful Alarms" (from Vessel States)
Jesu: "Dead Eyes" (from Silver)
For anything inevitable, there is a way to see it as a triumph,
Emm Gryner: "Black-Eyed Blue Sky" (from The Summer of High Hopes)
Vienna Teng: "Whatever You Want" (from Dreaming Through the Noise)
and for every epic triumph, a way to simply smile sideways and step into it.
Mountain Goats: "If You See Light" (from Get Lonely)
Birdmonster: "Ice Age" (from No Midnight)
Our songs about ends
Hyde: "SEASON'S CALL" (from FAITH)
In Flames: "Dead End" (from Come Clarity)
are our last-second misdirection rescues,
The Alarm: "Without a Fight" (from Under Attack)
Dear Leader: "Nightmare Alleys" (from The Alarmist)
and the best way to stop being lost is to run out of wrong directions.
Celtic Frost: "Os Abysmi vel Daath" (from Monotheist)
Killing Joke: "Implosion" (from Hosannas From the Basements of Hell)
So of course it hurts to breathe. Every breath is another moment in which we outlive ourselves. Everything we fear is drawn towards us by the strength of our terror and need, and maybe only ever held true by the invented gravity of our imagined defiance. Our fears coil, and power us as we discover how to allow them to unwind. We listen to roaring songs about cartoon deaths in the face of the horrific quiet of real death, and we open our mouths to be born again.