Lay Down (With) Your Armor
511 · 19 January 10
The Best of 2009
For yet another year I have lived two musical lives, one ever deeper into obscure mazes of metal, one out in the sunshine and warm air. Nothing feels contradictory about this: I'd live three or four more musical lives at once if I had the time. I'd happily live parallel lives in other aspects of my existence if there were ways. Life is short, so of course we want it to be wider.
But what I realize, really only as I compile these lists, is that my metal and non-metal lives are not so much parallel as perpendicular. My metal top-10 this year has 7 bands I'd never heard of before 2009, two more I knew and disliked, and just one band that has ever made one of these lists before. For a temperamentally obsessive emotional completist who still basically loves everything I've loved since I was 12 or so, this is borderline dumbfounding. Hopefully it's a combined testament to my own openness and the way the web has mostly eliminated any necessary logistical distinction between "heard of them" and "heard them". If I'd had to buy CDs to hear these bands, I'd have found one or two of them, or quite possibly none. And without them, I'd still have had no trouble making a list I felt just as strongly about, but there's no way to unlove, or at least no way I know or want to. I have always been convinced that there is more music I would love, farther in every direction I have looked, but I'm not sure I've ever felt as empirically justified in this belief.
And meanwhile, away from metal, I've also had a great listening year in which I could easily make a replacement top-10 if everything on this one mysteriously vanished. But almost nothing on either list was new to me. One band I'd forgotten about, one I hadn't previously loved. Basically, I heard lots of great music that wasn't metal this year, but I didn't discover much. That thread of my year was receptive and curious, but mostly not exploratory. And so there is probably music I didn't hear that I would have loved as much as some of these records.
But that, of course, was always the case. I have found the time to love these things. I have found these sounds to be worthy of my time, which is a finite resource, and my love, whose boundaries I have occasionally thought I'd distantly seen, and always been wrong.
Madder Mortem: Eight Ways
And thus my favorite metal album, this year, coalesces out of a dozen different shadows, Fugazi minimalism wound tensely around Rush's expansive confidence, or Vernon Reid's buzzsaw guitar skittering off the jump-cut fractures of Chicks on Speed, or Janis Joplin and Tommy Iommi hijacking Life Without Buildings, or frost giants with the dexterity of Pixies. I hear Cynic playing Cowboy Junkies, and Enslaved backing Mecca Normal, and then a sudden vision of how Crimson would fare with a queen.
For moments, Eight Ways follows all these lines and others, and then always moments later Agnete Kirkevaag tears them diving away again, into gypsy tailspin or fight-song fervor or gnashing fractals of defiance. For an hour, it seems almost painfully clear to me that everything I've ever loved leads to this, and there's some chaos topology in which terrifyingly straight lines run from Ray Charles to Kate Bush to FSOL to some tiny seam on the back of my skull through which invisible wires patch directly into my sense of besieged humanity. For an hour at a time, repeated as often as I can bear, I remember precisely what draws me here, metal not as fantasy or escape, but as a relentless grip on writhing truth, and a celebration of irreducible complexity tantamount to sacred ritual.
Secrets of the Moon: Privilegivm
So the cheerfully pointless orthographic substitution of "v" for "u", and the luminously hollow apple on the black cover of Privilegivm, and the solemn half-intelligible liturgical intonations of "chop down the tree of life" and "the gods will know your name" all aspire to the provoke, I think, the same puzzled shudders once engendered by the garish underbrush of Black Sabbath. There's no easy violence to explain this as reaction or hyperbole. Whatever secrets the moon has, surely airlessness renders them moot. Surely. But in a year when Sabbath themselves were stomping around in gleaming uniforms, however relogoed, Secrets of the Moon were again, for me, truer heirs to their original spirit of wakeful darkness. I owe my life in metal to Iommi and Dio as much as I owe anything to anybody I've never met, but The Devil You Know is self-declaratively complacent, metal as a template theme, not a philosophy.
And not that I can quote verses of literal inspiration from Secrets of the Moon, either. I doubt I could produce a page of coherent lyrical transcription from memory from all these albums put together, honestly, even allowing that some of them are in languages I don't speak. But the hollow apple is there to suggest that the tree of knowledge was never more than a convenient pretext for layoffs, anyway. The great insight instantiated in the idea of evil, and in all this music that flaunts nominal lineage from darkness and doubt, is that there is no such divide. There are no forbidden secrets, in the moon or anywhere else. These anti-temples and beautiful ominous monuments are erected on the sites of myths to say that we are free to inhabit what we are supposed to fear.
Thy Catafalque: Róka Hasa Rádió
And part of what we do with music, and why music is an element where movies are an industry, is let ourselves be taken elsewhere. I don't know how much time and money went into the making of Róka Hasa Rádió, but I could easily believe it was done by two Hungarians in their spare time from day jobs cleaning trains, on balky second-hand laptops in rooms with faded posters of Xenakis slowly crumbling onto the dusty tops of once-preciously-illegal shortwave consoles. And yet, with all the money on all the planets, Avatar would never have been any better than this. Here, unless you spend your days cleaning those same trains and this is actually what they sound like, is your voyage to an elsewhere, done in a medium qualitatively better suited for it. Here, in an album about which I know essentially nothing beyond its name, and ran across in a single random sentence somebody wrote somewhere about some other band entirely, is an effortless explosion of texture and flow and transport and altered perspective, spinning filaments of folk metal and carillon and Vangelis and Zoolook and radio static and alien loudspeaker announcements into an entire involuted universe. We are already standing on the roots of our Tree of Life. We are already the strangest creatures we can imagine, and this is not the limit of our imagination, but its origin.
Antigua y Barbuda: Try Future
Funeral Mist: Maranatha
Wardruna: Runaljod - Gap Var Ginnunga
Cantata Sangui: On Rituals and Correspondence in Constructed Realities
Manic Street Preachers: Journal for Plague Lovers demos + album + remixes
It was the Manic Street Preachers' year, for me. The album is good enough to be here, by itself, as taut and yearning a set of rock songs as anything they've done since Gold Against the Soul. Filling a whole record with words from the facing pages of deceased lyricist Richey Edwards' notebooks is the kind of patently terrible idea the Manics turn into supremely flawed greatness. They thrive on contradictions. No, more than that. They exist through contradictions. Intense political conviction clashes against strident immaturity (being dead or missing for 14 years hasn't made Edwards' writing any more sophisticated), plangent arcs of vehemence get snapped into halves and thirds to fit into song-meter, melodies soar over conjunctions and adverbs, even the titles seem engineered to be misquoted. Little wonder they were never huge in America, where Meat Loaf proved that most people can't even parse a sentiment spread out over more than one sentence.
But Journal for Plague Lovers isn't just an album, and if you believe that flaws can be integral to greatness, hearing it expand into a whole aesthetic system is like seeing souls become visible in the air above people's heads. The cycle starts with the demos, released complete as a bonus, and I could go back and forth between the versions almost indefinitely. They're nominally sketches and then pictures, but in many cases the process seems far more like derivation than polishing.
And they came to the US, after all, this band I have loved for 18 years and had never seen. They'd played in Boston only once, on some weekday in 1996 or so when I was horrifiedly out of town, and by the time they got here, this time, on the last night of the tour, James' voice was so shot he had to let the crowd take Traci's parts on "Little Baby Nothing". But they made it, and I made it, and for a short while a lot of years of my life and theirs telescoped into a both heartbreakingly and preciously small club. Standing on a balcony, watching people I've never met singing along with songs I can play in my head, I believe again that a small, near-solipsistic bit of human frailty can contain an internal universe big enough to nurture all our hopes.
But believing this is one thing, and hearing it happen is another. There's an album of remixes. At least half of my favorite remixes were already Manic Street Preachers songs, anyway, but this is now my vote for the greatest remix album so far in history, and the most compact defense yet of the whole form. The songs change moods, speeds, genders, cadences, conclusions, conditions. In places the remixes focus the original songs by contrast, in others they carve spaces around the boundaries of what the compositions dream. Now I want to hear the band play these songs, and then let them be reremixed, and then repeat. I'm pretty sure the cycle could go around four or five more times, at least, before the returns started even marginally diminishing. And this is what we embrace as possible in order to participate in art. That we do not make it, we just give it somewhere to begin.
Tori Amos: Midwinter Graces and Abnormally Attracted to Sin
And then there's a Christmas album. As far as I'm concerned there had previously only ever been two Christmas albums worth noting as standalone artworks, Loreena McKennitt's To Drive the Cold Winter Away and Low's Christmas. Tori's well-known religious issues made the idea at least superficially provocative, but I wasn't sure I actually wanted to find out whether I could bear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" via "Happy Phantom".
But it's only after Midwinter Graces that I understand what I really think about Abnormally Attracted to Sin. What the "real" album is missing is the sound of Tori surprising herself. Those songs don't always sound like Tori knew all along where they were going, but they sound like she knew how she was going to find out. Midwinter Graces is a conversely breathtaking leap into the terrifying unknown, a glittering hymn to the realization that facing your angels is always far harder than facing your demons. With demons, if you can't understand them, you're allowed to fight them. No such alternative if the only recourse is forgiveness. In a way this is the stylistic and moral synthesis of McKennitt's scholarly distance and Low's deconstructed faith, as if maybe it isn't arbitrary that those are the two Christmas records I am drawn to, after all. And if Loreena offered me a way to appreciate something I didn't endorse, and Low showed a path towards something else I could schedule in its place, Midwinter Graces shows that both of these evasive impulses are ultimately fighting in polite disguise. You don't defeat things you fear, that only preserves and postpones them. If you want to be free of them, you have to understand them better than they understand themselves. Enemies can only ever disappear inside of you.
Idlewild: Post Electric Blues
It Bites: The Tall Ships
Bat for Lashes: Two Suns
Wheat: White Ink Black Ink
Stars of Track and Field: A Time for Lions
Tegan & Sara: Sainthood
Maxïmo Park: Quicken the Heart
Shakira: "Mon Amour" (from She Wolf)
La Quinta Estación: "Sin Salida" (from Sin Frenos)
Nargaroth: "Frühling" (from Jahreszeiten)
Eluveitie: "The Cauldron of Renascence" (from Evocation I - The Arcane Dominion)
Dear Leader: "The Blue Print" (from Stay Epic)
The Sounds: "No One Sleeps When I'm Awake" (from Crossing the Rubicon)
In This Moment: "Sailing Away" (bonus track from The Dream limited edition)
Jesu: "Losing Streak" (from Opiate Sun)
Saros: "Acrid Plains" (from Acrid Plains)
Urna: "Sefira Malkuth" (from Iter Ad Lucem)
David Bisbal: "Dame Tu Amor" (from Sin Mirar Atrás)
K'naan: "Fatima" (from Troubadour)
Vienna Teng: "Augustine" (from Inland Territory)
Sleeping at Last: "Timelapse" (from Storyboards)
Sunn O))): "Big Church" (from Monoliths & Dimensions)
L'Acéphale: "Stahlhartes Gehäuse" (from Stahlhartes Gehäuse)
Jewel: "Sov Gott (Sleep Well)" (from Lullaby)
The Swell Season: "I Have Loved You Wrong" (from Strict Joy)
Kelly Clarkson: "I Do Not Hook Up" (from All I Ever Wanted)
OLIVIA: "Sailing free" (single)