As the end of year best-of lists rolled out over the past month, I have noticed all the important culture I have missed this year. Maybe I should restate that. As the end of year best-of lists rolled out over the past month, I have noticed how much time I have spent with my family at the expense of other things I also enjoy. The things that have taken the biggest hit for me are movies and TV. I barely watch television shows any more and I think I saw four movies in the theater this year: a collection of rare films on trains at the Wex (Stations of the Elevated along with short films by Brakhage and Pennebaker), Mission Impossible (bananas), Mad Max (spectacle squared), and Star Wars (“cultural event” that was totally fine). This feels criminal to me since going to the movies is something I really enjoy and I love a good TV show but what can I do? I didn’t actively intend to not participate in these two aspects of culture, it just sort of happened. It feels like in 2015, much like every year since we have had Miles and Lena, the year ended and I didn’t make time for this stuff. So it goes…
I did, however, make time for music. I think one of the reasons for this is because music is something we can do pretty easily as a family. Sure we have to take turns but usually due to some serious parental manipulation, my turns tend to last a lot longer than others. Still, family life has affected what music gets played around the house. For example, I have now entered year six of listening to less hip-hop than ever, mostly because all the swears have turned me into a prude around the kids. When I’m by myself I still make time for it but the most recent stuff I dig into is all the work by the Run the Jewels folks and Shabazz Palaces. I am sure Kendrick Lamar is good and I would really like to make my way through the new Pusha T but it’s not happening around the kids. (Drake, though, seriously? Why is he popular? I am at a complete loss on why his music is important to people. Though, if you’re reading, Drake, we can still be friends. I fuck with with Turrell too.) Anyway, sorry hip-hop. I miss you. See you when Lena goes to College.
With all this being said, here are some things I liked a lot that (mostly) came out this past year:
Julia Holter, Have You in My Wilderness
This is my favorite album of 2015. I can’t write about how good I find this, which is probably why I am not a music critic. She is such an interesting song writer and I love the live arrangements of her pieces. There is a lot of saxophone on the record but I guess she is touring with a violinist instead. Whatever. February 28th, Rumba Cafe. I will be there, unless the kids are sick or Shannon is traveling for work. So, likely, I won’t be there. You, though, may be unencumbered; you should attend. It will be worth it.
The rest of the list has no discernible order.
Christian Fitness, Love Letters in the Age of Steam
This is another band from Andrew Falkous, the guy from Mclusky and Future of the Left. I guess he has been making records under the name Christian Fitness since he got laid off from his temp job. There are some songs here that have a similar intensity to the FOTL and Mclusky songs but there is a lot of range and emotion as the record progresses. I’m glad I stumbled upon this one.
Harmonia, Harmonia Box
Technicality number 1. This box set came out this year but I didn’t buy it because I didn’t feel like paying 150 dollars to have it shipped from Europe. Now it’s sold out and I feel like I should have just bought it. Amazon has most of the MP3’s for sale, so I just got those instead but I’m not happy about it.
I knew Neu! and Cluster and Eno and Kraftwerk and Can before this year but I never spent anytime with Harmonia. I’m glad I did. The Live 1974 is a good place to start if you are so inclined. Why do I feel like I need to apologize for my list already?
I like this but you don’t have to. How’s that? Also, if you like synth music at all, Sam Prekop’s The Republic is actually an album released in 2015 and is worth checking out.
Floating Points, Elaeina
Another new-to-me discovery. Apparently it’s a combination of live electronic music and live musicians. There are moments that remind me of Radiohead’s electronic music. It’s great writing/art making music and has a lot of space to it. Plus, this video is pretty nice. See, I’m doing it again. I’m hedging. I like the video; there, I said it. Picturing readers judging you is not a great way to write, I have to say so I am going to stop doing that rrrriiiiigghhhhhhtttttt…now.
Wilco, Star Wars
Two things about this, one (kind of) unrelated to the record itself and one not:
- In an interview earlier this year Jeff Tweedy made a really nice point about people complaining online that his music had gotten worse since he got off drugs. He spoke about this popular idea that you have to be broken/ill to make great art and how this is a really damaging concept. I appreciated him saying that. I think it is important to say this often because I want to be both healthy and make interesting art. Besides, as everyone already knows, the real damage comes from late capitalism. This message has been brought you by CAN (Citizens Against Neoliberalism: Have you given your neighbor a gift that revives the soul today?)
- This record being a secret and then dropping for free seemed to dominate the conversation about the actual music a bit. It is my favorite Wilco record since A Ghost Is Born and I find things to like about every Wilco record. It always feels like it ends too soon so I end up playing it twice.
Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars
Speaking of surprise albums, I like Depression Cherry but I find myself listening to this record significantly more. I doubt releasing two records withing months of each other makes good business sense but I’ll take it. It made me feel like I was alive in 1964 and the Beatles and Rolling Stones just keep turning shit out.
Query: If all Beach House songs kind of sound the same then why do I like some so much more than others? Plus, why do I feel the need to really blast some of these songs? If you know the answer, you win a prize of some sort…probably my undying friendship. Lame, I know.
Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ll buy anything this goofy bastard does or is even loosely associated with. If you have the time, read this interview. Dan Bejar is the best; please don’t try and bring his poem down.
Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
What does Jim O’Rourke do all day? I imagine he has to eat and go to the bathroom and attend to regular human needs but at what point does he just decide to go be amazing in a studio? The record he made with Oren Ambarchi that came out earlier this year is worth checking out but I always appreciate his more straightforward efforts. Hint: they’re not really that straightforward. This record is sneaky. It took me about 6 or 7 spins to get into it but now I can listen to it everyday.
Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Yes, the name is really problematic. They’re changing it. Plus, I own everything by Joy Division so I’m probably part of the problem. This is still a great record. If you make it all the way through the video below you will probably get a sense of how the drummer broke his arm playing earlier this year. I can’t imagine being this intense for a radio show with virtually no one in the room with you (except for the host, who you can catch smiling towards the end).
Side note: Apparently, KEXP hosts just awesome performance after awesome performance. KEXP are you hiring any marginally talented hanger-on types that live 3000 miles away? Call me.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
A lot of people have written better than I ever will about this album (here’s one example). I think what I appreciate about this is how emotionally full it is. There is so much loss and desire here; when he sings “My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination” I find myself flooded with something like bittersweet joy, which is to say that it is the joy experienced in a small moment while maintaining some awareness of the difficult journey that led you to this moment. I actually feel like that a lot with this record.
One thing I am curious about is what it is like to preform this album on tour. How does the repetition shape a person’s understanding of all this emotion? I can play the record now and let it sort of hang in the background for a while…eventually something calls my attention and I am sucked back in but I don’t know what this would be like to play it 100 times in a relatively short amount of time. Who knows?
Holly Herndon, Platform
Most of the stuff on my list could be loosely grouped under the term “pop.” I used to bristle at the term when I was younger because all I thought about when I heard it was boy bands, Machiavellian record producers, and payola. Now, I just recognize that most of what I like is only separated from this other stuff by a matter of degree. This is to say that if you believe in the theory of multiple universes, some slight variation of this universe has Destroyer playing to 100,000 adoring fans in Rio while Taylor Swift is booked for an early show at Cafe Kerouac this Sunday. Maybe you would put Holly Herndon in this category of music too, but I wouldn’t.
Herndon’s music, along with people like Oneohtrix Point Never and Fennesz, uses electronic music to disrupt popular musical conventions and just make my head spin. I have a hard time putting it on and not paying attention to it, which is both good and bad as you might well imagine. Often the music feels a little cold to me but it is still invigorating. The closest comparison I can think of is something like reading a novel and reading philosophy. Reading philosophy has undoubtedly changed my life and the way I think about the world and my place in it but I laugh, smile, cry, feel dread and on and on when I read novels. Both have their place; forced to choose between the two, I would take novels but I am glad that I don’t have to choose.
The bridge between these two places of pop and, well, something else, can be found with someone like Matmos. Their new record doesn’t come out until later this year (all composed from the sounds of their new washing machine!) but the last record where they cultivated the compositional material for the songs from ESP sessions was just incredible. The Aphex Twin EP that he issued in 2015, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments, is also really close to being a bridge album too. Maybe Platform will get there for me eventually and I will look back on this list and cringe. That’s ok too.
Suicide, Ghost Riders
One of my favorite things to do is to play Talking Heads’ records around Shannon and set a timer. Inevitably, we have the following conversation:
Shannon: Who is this?
Me: The Talking Heads.
Shannon: I don’t like this.
Me: (Laughing) I know.
We will never have this conversation about Suicide because this might be the fastest she ever asked me to stop playing something. This is technicality number 2 on my list. Suicide recorded this at the Walker Art Center in 1981 and I think it was a record store day release this year (or re-release). Come for the weird yelps and sick feeling in your stomach, stay for Alan Vega telling the crowd that, “96 Tears should be the new national anthem.”
Internet tip: Don’t search youtube for Suicide Live clips. Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad idea. Bad idea. I cannot stress enough what a bad idea this is. I feel gross just looking at screen grabs. Man, this culture…
Other listening: I also liked the new Sleater Kinney, Godspeed!, Hot Chip, Protomartyr, Ought, Four Tet, Jamie XX, Joanna Newsom, Donnie Trumpet, Courtney Barnett, and Lower Dens records a lot. Biggest regret so far: not giving time to the Kamasi Washington record. I just need a spare four hours of time and I will get there, I promise (Long album slam!). What are you into?
Talk soon (probably not). I mean I really want to talk soon but time is finite and stuff needs attention. It’s not you, I promise, it’s me.
Gratuitous picture of the day (“Shopping with kids is easy if you bribe them every 12 steps” edition):