December 28, 2014

Listing and listening in 2014

Like many privileged, semi-literate white males before me, I like to end the year by noting and ranking the cultural material I've been consuming over the last 365 days. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. My first year-end music list felt like a big deal. It appeared in my high school newspaper and caused a minor stir among my classmates for the very understandable reason that it was “out of touch” with what people were actually listening to. At the time, this judgment, which I was half expecting, only served to validate my elitism. Like many a high-minded idiot teenager, I held a naive disdain for popular taste and didn’t really understand what it meant. My list, like almost all published lists, was a performative act. But when I try to think about who I was performing for, I don’t get very far. In retrospect, that particular “best of” list looks like a way of proving (as much to myself as to anyone else) that I belonged to a specific category of taste, a cultivated sphere of discerning listeners. I imagine things would have been different had the internet been as pervasive then as it is today. Perhaps I’d have been more humble, less melodramatic and self-important. More likely, I’d have been a troll.

Over the last ten years, I’ve come to see my year-end ritual in a different light. (This critical pursuit was actually the occasion for first starting this blog back at the end of 2008.) For better or worse, I fall into the same social category as some of the loudest voices in the culture industry and, though I no longer try imitate them, I’ve realized that there’s little value in the kind of writing most of us produce when we make lists. Most of my past lists were attempts perform a certain kind of authority that is, I think, becoming less persuasive. As Carl Wilson has observed, there’s been a shift away from the kind of paternal criticism that used to dominate debates over artistic merit in the music industry. And yet lists persist, especially at this time of year.

Perhaps such lists are and have always been a form of clickbait, a promise of easy knowledge and authority. Perhaps my general cynicism for these rankings comes from a place of resentment; perhaps, deep down, I think I deserve a bigger platform from which to champion my favourite things. (This is certainly how I felt in high school.) Perhaps my waning enthusiasm also likely has something to do with my view of our list-driven culture as a symptom of residual patriarchy (and neoliberal competition) in which I still willingly participate. But even based on their own merit, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of year-end lists and reviews are lazy attempts to recycle old material and, as such, the writing rarely moves beyond grand, self-congratulatory pronouncements. Hopefully this short review of the music I loved in 2014 will be different, but I won’t make any such promises.

I wrote less about music throughout 2014 than I have in previous years, but I did manage to post a few brief notes on tracks by Ought, Chad VanGaalen, and The War on Drugs, as well as a lengthier writeup on the latest album from Wild Beasts. I had meant to write some shorter pieces about Sun Kil Moon, St. Vincent, and Flying Lotus but never had enough time to work through my impressions. Having a chance to sit down and synthesize some of this stuff is one of the things I relish most about the Christmas season. And just as I was starting to compile my list, the year in music ended with a big surprise.

Before D’Angelo’s sudden release of Black Messiah a few weeks back, I was fairly certain that my music appreciation in 2014 started and ended with the album Benji by Sun Kil Moon, an intimate and at times brutally honest collection of songs that burrows deep into the mundane concerns of a middle-aged man. It’s the kind of album that feels out of step with the most relevant parts of the pop landscape: the territory is far from new but that's also one of the best things about it.

In the last couple weeks, D’Angelo and The Vanguard have taken over my listening from Sun Kil Moon, and rightly so. There is much to love about Black Messiah: it’s fresh, effortless and moving. It grins with positive energy, it marches on with fists defiantly raised in a gesture of radical love. With the rising profile of racially motivated violence across the US, with reactionary attempts to depoliticize the crimes committed by predominantly white police in places like Ferguson, MO and New York City, with the ignorance of those attempting to displace and neutralize the very necessary point made by #blacklivesmatter, D’Angelo’s radically titled follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo was an album we all needed to hear. It’s been well publicized that D’Angelo, keenly aware of his album’s urgency, along with his team, worked his ass off to get the thing out as soon as possible. The final production on Black Messiah may have been rushed, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. After all, it was a 14 year wait. As D'Angelo explained on a pamphlet from the album's debut listening session,
Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.
Sun Kil Moon's Benji, then, can only be secondary, and the album isn't really suited for top spot anyhow. In fact, I'd argue that as one of the best albums put out by a sad white guy with a guitar in 2014 it needs to be heard alongside D'Angelo and The Vanguard. Released in early February, Benji takes some of the most sentimental, cliche-ridden topics in white guy folk music and explores them until they count for something. It is, in many ways, a good summary of white privilege: Kozelek sings about getting older, feeling uncool at shows and having to pee a lot; he describes watching helplessly as his parents age; he reflects on pivotal moments in his youth, he names his insecurities, loves and attachments; he revisits moments of confusion, resentment and joy that went unnoticed by everyone around him. Some of the most moving moments, however, are not about him. On songs like “Carissa” and “Micheline” Kozelek turns his attention toward individuals from his past who’ve been victims of tragic circumstances, people who’ve had to struggle against an absurd, indifferent existence.

Notwithstanding his baiting of the music press (to which Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves gave one of the best responses), Kozelek held my interest through much of the year. His informal approach to songwriting was oddly compelling and I found much of Benji to be poignant and occasionally even beautiful. But Benji also has its limits. Kozelek committed to his anecdotal approach, honing in on the banal specifics of the everyday for a dense, univocal 60 minutes. It was a clever ploy. Benji’s understated form allowed Kozelek to say more than everybody else; his useless tiff with The War on Drugs seemed to carry that logic even further. Perhaps that’s why I found less straightforward albums by Flying Lotus and St. Vincent all the more compelling.

On Flying Lotus' fifth album, You're Dead!, Steven Ellison approaches his theme directly and dialogically without saying too much. Death is all too common and it comes all too quick. We glimpse it, we feel it; it’s a part of every human story. But it’s also profoundly individual and in this way eminently mysterious. On "Never Catch Me, my favourite song of the year, Kendrick Lamar joins Ellison for a powerful, instantly accessible distillation of You’re Dead!’s ambivalent embrace of the unknown. After the off-kilter jazz breakdowns of “Cold Dead” and “Fkn Dead," we meet hope paradoxically, in life's absence. The rest of the album expands the promise of “Never Catch Me,” playfully weaving in and out of something like consciousness and breaking down our linear expectations of time and the eternal return.

Cosmic concerns take all kinds of different forms and some are more familiar than others. Another big release of 2014, St Vincent’s fourth solo album, observes the futurity of our present moment by passing through a field of religious anachronism. On St Vincent, Annie Clark situates herself as icon, while we in the audience blankly nod our heads, lost in another thumping guitar line. In several different interviews, Clark explained that part of her intention with this album was to explore her own sound. In other words, it’s self-titled for a reason: it claims to realize the sound of Clark’s alter-ego, the sound of a saint.

So then, what does a saint sound like? More to the point, what does a saint of the (post)secular present sound like? What I liked most about Clark’s answer was that in each manifestation—her album, her lyrics, her videos and performances—she used her own static image as a point of departure. To me, this seems exactly right. Saints are typically accessed by sight, not by sound; it's easy to conjure up generic images of saintliness, the pale-faces of martyrs and mystics immortalized in Christian iconography. In this way, St. Vincent is an icon for the digital age, where the proliferation of sounds and images arrive from above and below. In the context of Clark’s discography, it continues an interesting progression: the more pronounced the artifice, the more robotic the appearance, the closer we get to something like truth or identity.

Earlier this year, Clark wrote a short piece for The Guardian about her experience using Twitter. "We perform our identities in the analogue and digital realm. Every tweet or T-shirt is a signifier that consciously or subconsciously communicates something about us to others."

St.Vincent’s preoccupation with the image is also what makes Clark’s cultural commentary on songs like “Digital Witness” so persuasive. Our lives, our experiences, our identities are always mediated by something, but digital platforms in particular enhance our visibility and, along with it, our appetites for spectatorship. Perhaps our orientation towards the glowing screen is less novel than we think. Perhaps we aren’t so different from medieval laymen, attuned to the icons that adorned their places of worship. We believe that we are accessing something that we all hold in common, a vehicle for transcendence, a way to participate in something greater than ourselves. Such naturalized rituals will become another era’s anachronism; but, as always, our desires persist within a contested history.

As Clark puts it, in a song inspired by her mother’s illness, “I, I prefer your love to Jesus.”

10 songs for 2014

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar - Never Catch Me
Perfume Genius - Queen
Ought - Habit
D’Angelo - The Charade
Caribou - Can’t Do Without You
Viet Cong - Continental Shelf
Wild Beasts - A Simple Beautiful Truth
Lydia Ainsworth - White Shadows
Future Islands - Spirit
Ava Luna - PRPL

My favourite EPs from 2014

Lydia Ainsworth - Right from Real Pt. 1
Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait
Hush Pup - Waterwings
Speedy Ortiz - Real Hair
Baths - Ocean Death

My favourite albums of 2014

D’Angelo - Black Messiah
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
Flying Lotus - You’re Dead!
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Caribou - Our Love
Jom Comyn - In the Dark on 99 (All the Time, All the Time)
Ought - More Than Any Other Day
Chad VanGaalen - Shrink Dust
A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Sea When Absent
Wild Beasts - Present Tense
FKA Twigs - LP1
Grouper - Ruins
Future Islands - Singles
Owen Pallett - In Conflict
Ava Luna - Electric Balloon
BadBadNotGood - III
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Swans - To Be Kind
Amen Dunes - Love
Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine
Marissa Nadler - July
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
Ex Hex - Rips
Angel Olsen - Burn Fire For No Witness
Perfume Genius - Too Bright

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