Nobody's Leaving This World Tonight
513 · 19 January 12
The Best of 2011
The new devices first accelerate the old ways, and then things change. I used to write about music on the internet. People still do, in a sense, but it's a different sense. We are now, collectively, exploring the idea that quantitative and qualitative are a quantitative distinction. Instead of a few people writing 3000 words each, we have thousands of people writing a few words each. This is clearly worse if you like to read about music, but if writing about music was a means to an end, then maybe more data is a better means. The end, the goal, the dream, is that with data and logic we can reveal the associative flow that we have always sensed inhered in the music itself. The dream, the hope, the aspiration, is that our thus-mediated self can enter into the flow. The theory, the thought experiment, the conceit, is that measure by measure, drop by drop, these sounds we love can never stop.
I have believed this to be somehow possible since, more or less, my first hour downloading and printing a Gary Numan discography off of Usenet. I spent a decade obsessively pursuing music discovery as literature, in a sort of parallel denial, but there was always data, and more data, and eventually it had to add up to something.
And so music discovery has become math, and I have become a conductor of numbers and correlations, and a bookkeeper of our itemized helplessness. And maybe it seems like we are supposed to fear this, these computers now listening to our music for us, but like many fears, this is a mistake of context. The computers aren't listening to music instead of us. The logarithms lead us to the start of a song, where we might not otherwise have ever arrived, but then the song starts and the mediation dissolves, and the magic power of the music pours straight into us the way it always has.
Blood Stain Child: Epsilon
I was never really a solipsist, any more than I was a nihilist or an anarchist or any other show-off meta-philosophy, any more than I am a viking or a cyborg or a Satanist. These are toy ideas in the best sense of "toy", fabrications of possibility for the purpose of contrast or hope. But if I were a solipsist, a universe arranged for my insulation could hardly do much better than cross-breeding European death metal and Japanese trance-pop. You learn something interesting about people who claimed to love being shocked when they flinch at being surprised. Shallowness, in the end, is merely a dimension. We have learned to make our shells so hard, and so shiny, that sometimes their thickness is gloriously immaterial.
Elizium: Relief by the Sun
But it goes both ways, or all three ways, or however many dimensions it is that you hold these songs to travel through. Elizium are as warm as Blood Stain Child are ice-mooned, measured where BSC are quantized, roaring where they chirp, open-hearted over airlocked. But these are tactical contrasts, I think, not antitheses. The problem with materialism is not that it values objects, it's that it mis-values objects, that it detaches the objects from their implications. The point of a cadence is not a function of the particular composition of its metronome. These paths are lined with soil and metal, stone and airwaves, flittering lights and movable hearths.
Unleash the Archers: Demons of the Astrowaste
This was the year I finally stopped going to record stores to buy music. This was, for much of my life, much of my life. But it had long since ceased to be functionally necessary, and then it had slowly ceased to be particularly helpful, and eventually it mostly stopped even being possible. I have personally seen material copies of only three of the twenty albums on these two metal lists, although Unleash the Archers' website claims they could mail you one of this. But I was never going to discover this band in a physical store. They're unsigned, they're from another country, and their name and art both make them look like refugees from a late 80s Metal Blade compilation that maybe suffered a last-minute Manowar cancellation. But none of this matters very much anymore. I couldn't possibly tell you why I spent the click or two necessary to follow some random link and hear a few seconds of this band. This year I listened to a few seconds of literally hundreds of bands about which I knew basically nothing. Much of the time, a few seconds later I knew one more thing about them, and that was enough. But 7 of these 10 astonishing albums began their life with me in just about this way, and maybe none were more surprising than Unleash the Archers, who turn out to be a sort of frenetically but unceremoniously epic post-ironic alt-power-metal cross between Gamma Ray and Madder Mortem, or maybe between Veruca Salt and Fates Warning. I miss record stores a little, too, but I would rather live this way.
There are forms of metal with most possible virtues, but quiet subtlety is chronically underrepresented, superfically because metal is about loudness and extremity, but maybe more inherently because the genre tends to evolve by extrapolation, rather than interpolation, and so each new thing is usually some earlier thing done faster or angrier or louder or more something. But it can go the other way. So while most of the threads of doom metal curve off into whisper-ambient funeral doom, or Sunn O))) drone or various formulations of stoner sludge, Pantheist take up the trajectory from Black Sabbath off through Cathedral, and follow it back towards grace and songcraft, like an anticipatory soundtrack for a new Harold and Maude cross-written into The Sandman.
Subway to Sally: Schwarz In Schwarz
We had a little metal listening club on I Love Music for a while last year. Each week somebody would pick a couple albums, and a group of us would try to listen to them all the way through. I'd never heard of Subway to Sally when somebody picked one of their albums for a week of formative early folk-metal, and I wasn't even entirely charmed by the punk/polka thump of it, but at least afterwards I knew who they were, so I gave this album its :10 chance when I came across it, just to see what it meant that they were still around. What it means, to me, is that somebody went back and figured out how to separate the energizing parts of old Skyclad from the goofy ones, and replace the latter with the least martial components of Neue Deutsche Härte. If we're rewriting movies via soundtrack shift, this is the one for morphing Katja von Garnier's Bandits halfway into Tom Tykwer's Heaven.
And extrapolate from Subway to Sally, splintering the marching rhythms into stabbing atmospherics, smearing the rock urgency into pagan catharsis, and redeploying the violins from Dexy's reels towards Nymanesque psycho-cartography, and you get an alternate folk-art-metal decomposition that, if this were Skyclad, would give them a style arc of almost Talk Talk-like scope.
Part of the point of this obdurate segmentation of my musical world into metal and not is that almost anything you contain and inhabit can react by expanding into all the implied and absent niches. You can remake an entire musical world inside of any worthy genre. Or maybe that's just what I mean by "genre": a varietal microcosm. And thus Jesu has become my metal world's Low, and it's only when I listen to the two in very quick succession that the visceral identification wavers. Minimal, haunted, cresting, frail and grand, post-anthemic and elemental.
Terra Tenebrosa: The Tunnels
The mole people have their own oblique, guttural, chittering music. It is meant, I think, mostly for instilling nightmares in voles, and some kind of cabalistic subsonic thrall-herding of gray owls.
Thy Catafalque: Rengeteg
Somebody must have figured that if you played a kid a steady-enough stream of Jean Michel Jarre, Gogol Bordello and 69 Love Songs over an old shortwave, it would wean him off metal. It didn't work.
I don't care how audibly life-affirming your pretend-nihilistic music is, if you miss your own point and actually kill yourself, you go to the bottom of the list. Those are the rules.
Wolfchant: "Black Fire" (from Call of the Black Winds)
Another measure of a good genre is that it should be possible to redeem its clichés by instantiating all of them at once.
Avven: "Ros" (from Kastalija)
I feel a tiny bit bad for sticking to my metal-only Pazz & Jop voting in the singles poll, where I thus almost never agree with anybody at all. But then there are songs like this galloping, roaring, square-dance riot by an unsigned Hungarian band, who appear to have filmed the video for it in somebody's grandparents' attic while maybe wearing some of their clothes, and for a couple minutes I feel again like you are responsible for what you witness, whether anybody else ever sees it or not.
Heretoir: "Fatigue" (from Heretoir)
When Matt and Clare restart Sarah as a shoegaze-metal label (with release numbering restarting from 666, of course), Heretoir will be the second band they approach, and the first to sign.
Alcest: "Elévation (Re-recorded)" (from Le Secret (Reissue))
But we shall none of us forget that Alcest invented the form, and can invent it over again any time they feel like it.
Agrypnie: "Augenblick" (from Asche)
What you get if you make your metal band by crushing up and reassembling Big Country's "Porrohman".
Frijgard: "Frijgard" (from Nebelwacht)
Sure, when you see a forced march through Hell filmed in slow motion, with Sarah McLachlan singing "Into the Fire", it seems very glamorous and dramatic. Different story when you have to do it yourself, in bad shoes.
Dalriada: "Mennyei Harang" (from Ígéret)
My current one-song explanation of folk metal.
Arven: "Dark Red Desire" (from Music of Light)
My current one-song explanation of dragon-princess metal, which is a genre I just made up, but which I hope all the bands currently failing to be Nightwish will seriously consider for next year, because it's easier, and it's often more fun to be really good at something kind of easy than really mediocre at something extremely hard that somebody else is already doing well.
Oak Pantheon: "Architect of the Void Part II" (from The Void)
My current one-song explanation of American temperate-rain-forest metal, which is a real thing even if I just made up the name and half the bands actually live in Minnesota.
Kampfar: "Bergtatt (In D Major)" (from Mare)
Five and a half minutes of relentless strangled chorus, like Ragnarok re-cut for Sportscenter. Which, arguably, is what much of metal cheerfully aspires to: the Apocalypse, but without all the commercials and boring penalty-rule deliberations and timeouts.
Airborne Toxic Event: All at Once
I couldn't get away from "Sometime Around Midnight", and eventually it grew on me a little, but not enough to explain how thoroughly and repeatedly overwhelmed I've been by this next record, as expansive and ambitious a Rock Album as any in the Long, Grand, and Somewhat Outmoded Tradition of such things. It's both pointless and foolish to predict posterity, and my cheerfully pointlessly foolish prediction is that we'll look back on this like we look back on Jailbreak and Every Picture Tells a Story and The Joshua Tree. Or maybe I only mean that my heart is still willing to admit more of these, and the undecided part of this prediction is not the record or the future but the we. This we believes in choruses and sighs, and guitars that ping like Big Country, and drums that thump instead of swing, and people singing like they need to hear what they believe echoing around them more than they fear cowards' doubts. This we is in love, recursively, with what it sounds like to be in love with love with love with everything. This we inhabits the past and future by the involuntary aching expedient of timelessness.
Gazelle Twin: The Entire City
Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Björk all had new albums this year, but the one that made me feel the most like they once did, and like in their turns Jane Sibbery and Laurie Anderson and Life Without Buildings and Bat for Lashes all have, was this lush, stuttering, murky, muted, secret puzzle-logic poem of a record, like flannel starlight reflected off the uncanny line where matte-finish ocean touches rain-dulled streets, like a reminder that dance music can be the simple conversion of fog-wisp dreams into patterned motion, and that clockwork is only one of many species of mechanism.
Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
In which we return to the story began by Siouxsie and Curve and Sleeper and Theaudience and discover that it has new chapters every bit as swirlingly, crashingly thrilling as the old.
Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain
But part of what I hear in what I love, and part of what I mean by love, is anticipation of forgetting, is lingering in the immanent intrinsic sadness of moments. And if some of these materializations are oblique and cryptic, still others are heartbreakingly plain. Emmylou's ethereal voice ghosts over lost roads and shrouded mornings like a memory of memory, and I am swept up in so precisely what it feels like to be alive against our skin.
Juliana Hatfield: There's Always Another Girl
There's still a universe, somewhere, where this is me. Take away my computers, perhaps, and the consolations of numbers, and an atheist's defiant faith in Eternity if for nothing more than a sense of proportion, and under it I think there wait versions of all these frailties and expectations. There is a map we could draw, I expect, of Juliana and my lives, from the night the Blake Babies played in my college dining hall, and the lines twine around each other like a ballet in adrift, lonely RNA. And I hear myself in this singing, and my name in the liner notes is half the mundane marker of my support for the idea that art must obey its own dictates of scale, and half a private joke between me and some other self.
Tommy Keene: Behind the Parade
Elusive masterpieces visit themselves on the unwary, and then are away again, and the perfectly understandable cargo-cult insistence on recreating them by repetition never works. Or almost never, anyway.
M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
We underrate Young Adult fiction, I think, much like we have underrated Science Fiction and Heavy Metal and any system with its own stubbornly earnest internal rules. But dismissing these things misses the crucial point that art need not necessarily speak to us as we are. So if M83 are like a mirror-Earth Tears for Fears without the angst, or children of the Human League born into a world that has never not known disco, or a Peter Pan to carry Talk Talk and Propaganda away to the safety of the island of Perpetual Arpeggiators, then I am perfectly willing to read stories of what it felt like to not know all this miserable and intractable and portentious grownup nonsense yet, and emininently pleased to melt into this sprawling, radiantly naïve accumulation of everything every other band like this pretends to be above.
Tori and Kate's albums slid into and out of my life without much ceremony, which I wouldn't have necessarily thought possible, and Low's sank this far. But no farther. There was a long period where every new Low album made me change my understanding of something, usually them but by no means always, and this one doesn't, but in some ways it's almost as fascinating and possibly even more encouraging to listen to Alan and Mimi finding their way without any kind of quiet revolution. Because sometimes you won't.
The Sounds: Something to Die For
Blondie: Panic of Girls
There was an album this year that said The Human League on it, but it had, for me, no emotional connection at all to the synthpop charm of "Don't You Want Me" or "(Keep Feeling) Fascination". The Sounds came closer, following through on the retro feints of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Marina and the Diamonds and Metric to find out that the disused ways back into synthpop beepiness can also take you onwards past the Go-Go's and X-Ray Spex and Penetration and Berlin and M.
And Blondie, of course. There are probably some tedious logistical reasons why a Blondie/The Sounds tour could never happen, but my musical life plays in my head, not on stages, and in my head these two albums are jubillantly interlaced, as if separated, as they in fact are, by nothing but meaningless distance.
Sloan: "Green Gardens, Cold Montreal" (from The Double Cross)
Two minutes of quiet, over-studied perfection.
The Decemberists: "Calamity Song" (from The King Is Dead)
There is no way you will ever talk me out of my conviction that this is a deliberate and inspiredly undeniable demonstration of what early REM would have sounded like if Michael Stipe had been willing to enunciate.
The Mountain Goats: "Damn These Vampires" (from All Eternals Deck)
If you don't understand metal, maybe our desperate need for mythology with which to make sense of what we can't change will make more sense to you in this reedier, snare-brushed, really no different at all form.
Richard Bucker: "Escape" (from Our Blood)
Frailty and power are, after all, distinctions of polarity, not of magnitude.
Roxette: "She's Got Nothing On (But the Radio)" and "Speak to Me" (from Charm School)
And our best celebrations of cheating death are refusing to let it dim our joys or qualify our yearnings.
Juliana Hatfield: "Don't Wanna Dance (Brad Walsh Remix)"
Or, maybe even better, letting life rush back into us all at once.
Kelly Clarkson: "I Forgive You" (from Stronger)
Even when you feel like you want to live forever, sometimes you have to speed up the clocks.
Reik: "No Te Quiero Olvidar" (from Peligro)
And I will bet you, if you don't believe me, that every human language starts with words for notyetnotyetnotyetnotyetNOW!
Magnum: "Wild Angels" (from The Visitation)
And the trick, maybe, is just to not forget any of the first things you knew.