Weathering the Swarm
The phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations" got drudged up a lot this year, mostly because of the time Joseph Biden called Barack Obama "articulate" and "clean" with that subtext of surprise. It's not really an apt way to sum up the year in music, I suppose, but if there's one common virtue among the records and songs below, it's not an aesthetic one (definitely not if you count cover art): it's staying power. It's that they stuck in my head after my attentions had moved elsewhere, sometimes out of necessity and more often out of restlessness. Maybe dispassion and overstimulation are more accurate culprits than low expectations: hearing and having music is so convenient now, so ephemeral, so stultifyingly easy to do, that it's a challenge to stay excited about anything for a meaningful interval — before hearing it or after. A lot came and went this year, and I have no doubt that more will pass on both sides of the radar in the future. Here's what made me glad that I spend as much time on music as I do.
Noise is a foregone conclusion for Parts & Labor, just as it is for most Brooklyn-based beard enthusiasts with thought-provoking names and garish Myspace pages. What's exceptional about Mapmaker is that not a single noise in the aggregate feels superfluous: every belabored thud, every squeal of tortured circuitry — even that buzz in "Fractured Skies" that still, without fail, makes me think my cell phone is vibrating — has a singular, monumental, stubbornly bewitching purpose. This record made the spring feel fresh.
For the last few months, on the other hand, it's been cold and bleak. The sky is usually grey but never uniformly so; it hails on occasion, but never snows. I've yet to find better accompaniment for that suspension between misery and majesty than this, along with the first half of last year's Silver EP. It's deceptively monochromatic, relentlessly droning, but not so oppressive as to eliminate hope. Kind of like Al Gore, if you think about it.
Frosty, paranoid new-wave post-pop? I don't actually know how to describe this record without making it sound awful.
If the prior incarnation of Maserati was a little too formless to be engaging, Turing Machine was formalistic to the brink of soullessness. I wouldn't have thought of it, but signing on TM drummer (or "robot built by cavemen") Jerry Fuchs supplied exactly the momentum a band like Maserati needed. Delay-pedal idolatry and technical precision are easy enough to phone in individually, but Inventions combines them deftly enough to be neither post-rock nor prog-rock, just the best ostensibly boring album of the year.
Yep, still got it.
Another sleeper Pinback album that turns out to be well worth the initial listens where it sounds, uh, sleepy. Crow and co. layer themes and rhythms with impeccable acuity, and the payoff a little beneath the surface is almost ridiculously sustainable. Energy takes the place of suspense for some of Autumn, which doesn't always gel quite right, but the patience and the mischief are still perfectly calibrated. If Pinback didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
Consider me in thrall. Perplexing, nerdy brilliance (sending sexy SMSes to my ex's new man... 'cause I can) from Yoni, some excellent reinterpretations of songs I didn't know existed from kind-of-unlikely third parties. Everyone does right except that asshole from Xiu Xiu, who squirm-sobs his way through the otherwise beautiful "Yo Yo Bye Bye." Dick.
I read somewhere that this was "shoegazing blackmetal," which is half accurate at best. Perhaps you will recognize Neige as the dour Frenchman behind Amesoeurs (fey but shrieky) and Peste Noire (none more black), but this is about as dreamy and idyllic as it gets in either category. Sublime textures and a pleasing sense of ceremony, without the black cloaks or corpsepaint.
Didn't expect this one to stick around as long as it did, but it took up residence in my head for much of the summer. Breezy, well-crafted, sweet and inconsequential, just as certain things about the summer should be.
A two-EP reissue, but news to me. The best I can do is "if the Cure were gearheads," "if Isis were girlier," or "if Hum had been from Texas and a little more miserable." I want to call it post-emo, but it's possible I'm just talking about myself.
Inscrutable feel-good gonzo rock from an Athens consortium whose members go by names like Darkness and Iceberg. There is plenty to love, plenty to scratch your head at, a little bit to hate (like the reggae track at the end) — there's just plenty. I find the line "and everyone's told / that the road to hell is awesome? very winning, in a tactless sort of way.
A piece of young John McCauley's endearingly self-destructive mind, all whiskey-deadened vocals and uncompromising honesty. Nat Baldwin and company drop in now and then to sweeten the bullet.
Seems like a long time ago by now. It captures the big and the small with equal poignancy, a little more nuanced than Funeral in tone and scope but just as excitable, eloquent, and, I dunno, gigantic. Plus at least their hype has died down, which doesn't seem like it'll be happening for (to) Radiohead anytime soon.
Haha, just kidding.
No amount of live audio jitters, an unfortunate tagalong at TMS shows, can shake the calm, reptilian nastiness of this jam. For all the exacting sonic non-equilibrium of the excellent Book of Bad Breaks, though, like its predecessors it's best appreciated from a safe distance. All that second-person narration gets a little scary.
You kind of just have to hear it.
The whole album sounds like a mess from far off, but its moments of clarity are pretty hypnotic, especially the woozy alien sympathy of this song.
So the year in rap wasn't a total loss: "Summertime is hot, and you ain't got no freon/ I'm in the Bentley drop; to me you a peon/ You got neon lights underneath your Nissan/ I got Ving Rhames passing me the weed, son." I'm not even sure that's what he's saying, and it still rules.
Chicago's getting restless again. Don't trust the naiveté of this song for a second.
The rest of Dry Futures is plenty brittle and vitriolic, but never as smoothly as here. This is like four Pixies songs coked up and threatening each other with switchblade combs.
This song starts out so serenely, so unassumingly, that its transfiguration into divinely fuzzy rapture is a little humbling. Extra points to this album for having a song called "You, You're Awesome."
The interpretive baggage of "Queen" (you know, the one where they sing) is a little heavy, though that song is also excellent, and also in 7/8 time. This one is concise, energetic, and simply excited to exist — whence, in a broad sense, the charm of the band itself.
and a book …
I'll sneak this in because the jack-of-all-trades approach to culture Bayard pretends to pretend to advocate — namely, embracing your ignorance of specific works and contenting yourself with an understanding of where they fit into the "collective library" — is just as apt for music as it is for literature. Someone had to step up and propose this kind of thing, for the same reason that I can hardly keep afloat despite listening to some jawn or other roughly twelve hours a day. Too bad Bayard turns out to be a total douche.
Bottomless Pit, Hammer of the Gods (Comedy Minus One)
Explosions in the Sky - “The Birth and Death of the Day" (All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, Temporary Residence)
By Daniel Levin Becker