In my early years, I loved the best-of year-end lists. I would wait for the local music critic to lay out his–always his–picks and try to see how my music taste stacked up against them. As I got serious about collecting music, I liked to pretend I didn’t care about the Village Voice/The New York Times/The Cincinnati Enquirer/Pitchfork/The AV Club/The Wire/My friends, especially Billy, but we all know that’s a lie; I cared so much. Now that I’m a little older and (sorta) more mature, the ranking that goes along with these lists seems so stupid to me…but not stupid enough that I don’t still like to look. I would be lying if I didn’t still get a tiny dopamine rush when something I like is something the ‘tastemakers’ like too but, more than anything now, I use the lists to look for things I might have missed.
In this spirit, here are some records I liked a lot that haven’t been featured prominently in any best-of list I’ve come across. I’m happy if we share some of these in common but I’ll be even happier if our paths cross soon.
Horse Lords, Mixtape IV
The video below is not associated with the album (archival project?) they put out this year but these Chirp Factory videos are so good that I can’t help but share them. The guy who introduced me to this band said something like, “I don’t know…West African drumming? Minimalist, but really loud? Listen, you’re just going to have to buy it.” I’m on board for whatever these dudes do.
Circuit Des Yeux, Reaching For Indigo
My friend Tim and I used to do “Difficult Listening Mondays” in the record store we worked at together. Mondays were such a slow night and we would close together so it was how I learned about some metal music and I got to play some avant-garde jazz and noise stuff. Anyway, I think Circuit Des Yeux would have fit nicely into our evening.
I saw them open for Julia Holter a couple years back and was blown away by the Scott Walker/Nico/Diamanda Galás sound of Haley Fohr’s voice. My favorite song on the new album is “Black Fly,” which runs the spectrum from folk to “Please let me get what I want” to something more sinister. Again, these Chirp Factory videos are so good, so here’s a sense of them live. (And I know, I know, this was on some “best-of” lists…I just wish everyone could hear it, which is the same way I feel about that Perfume Genius record.)
Mind Over Mirrors, Undying Color
This is Jaime Fennely’s project, which is usually a solo thing but this time he gathered people from other projects I like a lot like Califone and Bitchin’ Bajas as well Haley Fohr from Circuit Des Yeux. It’s quiet and meditative in parts and I graded papers to it a lot in the background this year. I thought that is where it would remain.
Until I noticed that every time I had it on it would float to the back for a while before rushing forward to command my attention. It mostly hinged on Fohr’s voice for me (again) but I always felt like it cleared space and brought my attention to my specific moment, kind of like mindfulness. Anyway, this was an album, like the recent Four Let records, that further nudged my interests in music outside the traditional Western motifs. I’m still a rock/pop person at heart but meandering is good too.
Karen Gwyer, Rembo
I graded to this one a lot too. It’s a techno record that has a cheeky premise: one song proposes a question and the next song answers it; for example, one track is titled, “Why does your father look so nervous?” and the subsequent track is, “He’s Been Teaching Me to Drive.” In the interests of full disclosure, I think twenty-one year old me would make fun of this but forty-one year old me finds variation and thoughtfulness in it. Can you call something dance music when I all I do with it is nod my head while I am in the studio? I guess I just did.
The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, Return
I first heard this ensemble when I was in North Carolina from my friend Donald who handed me a copy of their performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. It was, and remains, exhilarating. Return is all original compositions from alumni who you can image would play on something like Music for 18 Musicians. At points this is meditative, sinister, joyous, and surprising, which ticks a lot of boxes for me. Despite the instrumental nature of it, I can’t have it on when I really need to focus: too distracting.
One aside about this: I emailed the director of the ensemble on a long shot because I was curious about how he approached pedagogy with a group like this of so many young musicians (My taste in music was awesome at 18 but it wasn’t anything like this). He gave me a really thoughtful response no more than 48 hours later, apologizing because he had been a little busy with the new album coming out. That was really nice.
I should be clear that I still like to rock. My friend, Krista, sent me a message about these guys and I got obsessed really quickly with them, the Feelies/Modern Lovers thing is never not interesting to me. While listening to everything I could, I said to myself, “Hmmm, I think this would be a fun show live. Let me see if they are coming close any time soon. Yes! They are at Ace of Cups…last night.” If there was ever a metaphor for me and my relationship to popular culture right now, well, this is it.
Do Make Say Think, Stubborn Persistent Illusions
When I was first introduced to Godspeed You! Black Emperor back in 2000, my little obsession with instrumental rock music grew into something much more consuming. While Godspeed continues to make excellent records, my favorite offshoot of the group is Do Make Say Think. The record they put out this past year might be my favorite thing of the entire year. I find the melodies they construct inviting and always am awed at how they use these simple melodies to create a really emotional environment that suggests something much more complicated. Plus, the guitar tone is instantly recognizable and always awesome.
Anyone who has read these lists over the years (hi, Mom!) will not be surprised by these next two entries on my list. Destroyer is one of my favorite bands for a whole host of reasons I can bore you about if you are really interested. For now, let me focus on one thing: the Destroyer live experience.
I have seen Dan Bejar solo as Destroyer three times and with a full band just once. Solo, Bejar plays his acoustic, barely says anything to the audience (when he does it is usually very droll), and finishes most songs with a dramatic bow. The last time I saw him this way was with my friends Shane and Aaron here in Columbus at a club called the Basement where his exit after his final song was all the more dramatic because there was a door that led backstage that dramatically swung shut after he marched through it when his encore ended. When he plays these acoustic shows, the songs are short with no guitar solos; they’re all melody and lyrics, which is both spare and affecting. The live band shows, especially since Kaputt, have tons of space in them for the band to bring what I can only assume is their own interests to bear on the songs, often stretching them out to twice the length they would be if Bejar was playing them solo.
Josh Wells, one of my favorite drummers, produces the new record and it is no surprise to me that he brings some interesting things to the songs, none more so than “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood.” Being the type of person who scours youtube for Destroyer performances, I have been waiting to see what shape this would take live. I was pleased to see the programmed drum track form the anchor for a song where Wells’ percussion could first accentuate, then dominate, the piece. Bejar’s records all always worth more attention.
Julia Holter, In the Same Room
Much like Destroyer, Julia Holter’s touring band is awesome. One of the things I enjoy about seeing them live is how they always perform slight alterations of Holter’s songs. This album was recorded live in the studio with her band after shaping them for months on the road. It’s really good at creating a mood that I can best describe as super engaging Sunday morning music. It’s very pleasant in many places, often atmospheric, and discordant enough to keep you on your toes. See them live if you can!
Yellow Paper Planes, Building a Building
Shannon and I were with my brother and some great friends at Louisville’s Forecastle Festival this past year, waiting for LCD Soundsystem to play (awesome, by the way) and listening to Sturgill Simpson. Two songs into his set, Shannon leaned over to me and said, “This sounds like Josh’s band, but not as good.”
Josh is our neighbor and his band is the Yellow Paper Planes. It’s not often I have gotten the experience of watching a group put together some songs or have someone really sing in my living room but we’ve had the privilege of doing just that over the last couple of years. And it seems silly to say, but I am proud of them. They are doing something a little different in 2018 and releasing a bunch of 7-inch records instead of a full album, so please try and support them if you can.
One more thing before I go: I think I am in year two of what seems like it might be shaping up to be a prolonged mid-life crisis. If it’s not obvious by now, I love music. Additionally, I find so much to commend in television and film. And I find some writing so moving that I can’t, ironically, put it into words. So what did I choose to do with my life? Make (and teach) art, the artistic field with the least popular appeal and often most oblique art forms of all of these. Furthermore, almost all art that I read about in places like the New York Times and Artforum appears tied to economic privilege in ways that seem, quite frankly, gross. It’s enough to grind anyone down, or at least enough to grind me down.
When someone shared this LA Review of Books article earlier in the year, it raised a lot of mixed emotions in me. On one hand, I found it utterly depressing. It has become blatantly clear that the chances of me ever ‘making’ it as an artist is only slightly more likely than me becoming an astronaut. On the other hand, I found the fact that I am not alone pretty comforting. My work can have worth–so to speak–that is not tied, at least overtly, to this abstract system of capital; it is more work that functions as a result of a network of friends. “Success” as an artist can’t be a show at the Whitney, it has to be something else. So let me try and redefine it. Maybe success can be something like an appreciation for the time to bring something new into the world, an appreciation for the people who support bringing these things into world, and a reminder to say thanks for the time we share together in these moments.
So here’s to success in 2018. May we hold it often and doubt it rarely. Amen.