Behind What You Thought You Needn’t Have Started
Here’s something I hammered out when I knew I had to get to it: a boring non-essay that’s half me complaining and half me comparing data, an even more boring entry than what I wrote last year. Once I realized how much I was whining I gave up and pieced the scraps together to form whatever you might call it. I’m later to the party this year than I intended, and after only a brief time I understand why critics are so fervent in skipping over most December releases in order to compose their lists: no one wants to be the last guy to post what he thinks. By that time, the party’s over and no one gives a shit what you think. They’ve already started cracking on new year albums, and before you know it, you’re already behind what you didn’t think you needed to have begun yet.
Came across an interesting blurb from VICE about how their list, like all lists, was subjective, proven by Billboard statistics demonstrating there is literally too much music for you to hear in the time a year allows. But I didn’t agree with their notion that there are no canons, and furthermore that publications do not enforce canons. Maybe canons don’t exist in the pomo sense of Derrida’s genre disintegration by method of adding 1, but I don’t buy for a second that several publications aren’t trying to proffer guidelines within certain strict bounds. How else do you account for the exclusions of stuff like jazz? “99% of music is shit,” VICE claims. Not, it’s not. It’s just not that great.
- The Julie Ruin – Run Fast (TJR)
- Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings)
- M.I.A. – Matangi (Interscope)
- Rilo Kiley – Rkives (Little Record Company)
- They Might Be Giants – Nanobots (Idlewild)
- Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)
- Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
- Superchunk – I Hate Music (Merge)
- Rachid Taha – Zoom (Wrasse)
- Wussy – Duo (Shake It EP)
- Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon)
- Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Merge)
- Best Coast – Fade Away (Jewel City EP)
- Four Tet – 0181 (free Soundcloud mixtape)
- Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa (Out Here/Nonesuch)
- Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
- The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
- Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind (Temporary Residence)
- Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down (The Leaf Label)
- Veronica Falls – Six Covers Vol. 2 (Bandcamp download)
- Parquet Courts – Tally All the Things That You Broke (What’s Your Rupture? EP)
- Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace ’12)
- Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
- Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Shady/Interscope)
- Arts and Crafts: 2003-2013 (Arts & Crafts)
- Serengeti – The Kenny Dennis LP (Anticon)
- Bombino – Nomad (Nonesuch)
- Homeboy Sandman – All That I Hold Dear (Stones Throw EP)
- Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot (Hot Cup)
- Serengeti – Saal (Graveface)
- Gypsyphonic Disko Nola-Phonic: Vol. 1 (free download ’10)
- Solange – True (Terrible EP)
- Orchestra Super Mazembe – Giants of East Africa (Earthworks ’01)
- Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Slippery Rock! (Hot Cup)
- Peter Evans – Zebulon (More is More)
- Peter Evans Quartet – Live In Lisbon (Clean Feed ’10)
- Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – Jama Ko (Out Here)
- Kaze – Tornado (Libra)
- Homeboy Sandman – Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent (Stones Throw EP)
- My Bloody Valentine – m b v (free download)
- David Greenberger – They Like Me Around Here (PelPel Recordings)
- Trio 3 + Geri Allen – Celebrating Mary Lou Williams: Live at Birdland New York (Intakt ’11)
- Trio 3 + Jason Moran – Refraction – Breakin Glass (Intakt)
- Mike Cooley – The Fool on Every Corner (TuneCore)
- Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee – Heels Over Head (Amulet)
- Peter Evans Quintet – Ghosts (Peter Evans Quartet ’11)
- Gypsyphonic Disko Mardi Gras Mix Tape 2013 (free download)
- Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
- Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
- Erkin Koray – Mechul (Sublime Frequencies ’11)
- Sam Dees – The Show Must Go On (Atlantic/Real Gone Music)
- Etienne Charles – Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music)
- Wayne Shorter – Without a Net (Blue Note)
- David Greenberger – Never Give Up Study (PelPel Recordings ’12)
Thinking I had to pen some sort of year-end retrospective ate at me for so long that finally I sat down to push something out, only to find I had rather little to say about music in 2013. There are plenty of reasons a lack of notable observations, however blatant or banal, has sprung. One is my near-disconnection with the critical consensus, no discernable pattern in my own picks, and finally a general feeling that the overall harvest was relatively mediocre. Sure, I came out liking more albums in 2013 than I did 2012 (or 2011), but that’s probably attributable to my hearing 288 new releases from 2013 as opposed to the 269 I heard in 2012 (226 in 2011) with less random pickups, no weeks-long lapses in listening time, and a better ear for what was worth pursuing and what was junk*. The logician in me says this dip in enthusiasm and wonderment is a natural byproduct of having heard so much; the 1,000th album you hear won’t (and can’t) mean as much to you or carry as much impact on the first spin as your 100th. Regardless, I’ve been excited about a fair number of releases only to face disappointment, however trivial, for the past few years, and 2013 in particular felt especially deflating. But I get the sneaking suspicion I’m the only one who feels that way.
I shouldn’t play total buzzkill. I found plenty of music I really love in 2013. But I guess my disappointment can be summed up in an album I was hardly anticipating: Kanye West’s Yeezus. After overrating his 2012 label comp, I sat back and listened through his discography, blown away by his consistency and, believe it or not, lyrical dexterity. He throws samples on a mixer and ties off a beat like a master chef executes the coup de gras on his signature dish; it looks effortless, but there’s more blood and sweat in it than you can imagine. And though I can’t say I listen to Kanye often, I’m not sure how much more of Yeezus I’ll hear. It’s a perfectly fine record, one I definitely like (that B Plus and those three stars may look measly to you but I sweat over that shit), and it wasn’t all the Death Grips-soundalike talk or jabber about how disagreeable his egotism is that turned me off—it can’t be said any more simply than that it didn’t pop for me. Unsurprisingly, I’m in the minority.
Yeezus leads Metacritic’s year-end, top-ten list roundup with Vampire Weekend trailing. It’s just about a damned certainty he’ll top Pazz & Jop, the poll I rely on as it’s a better indicator of our audial zeitgeist than Metacritic, as P&J is almost exclusively American while Metacritic includes anyone it can**. But I found in looking at Metacritic’s comp that I was contrarian to many of the top picks that I honestly felt surprised by; I preferred Drive By Truckers’ Mike Cooley’s solo album more than Jason Isbell’s, will take (and have taken) Four Tet any day over French duo Daft Punk, and find the delivery of Homeboy Sandman superior to the El-P/Killer Mike team-up or Death Grips-inflected Yeezus. Last year I pontificated on how the two towering music voices in America could surreptitiously pass over so many of my top-ranked picks; this year I find I’m more or less a contrarian on most fronts. Surprisingly, RS and Pitchfork agreed on 23 albums for their retrospective, up from 12 last year and nearly half their respective lists. Of those 23, I haven’t heard 5, three of those by accident and two by deliberate choice and/or conscious avoidance. Of the 18 I have heard, 7 appear here, with an additional 5 awfully close to making the cut.
So what did I pick? Here’s a quick breakdown of my choices: 54 in all with 8 of those from previous years for a total of 46 2013 picks***; of those 46 ’13 picks, 8 of those were jazz (38 pop/rock/hip-hop/world choices); of those 38, 11 are either female artists or bands (co)fronted by women, with 3 of those in the top 5 and 4 in the top 10. That top 10 skews heavily towards punk rock, with, depending upon how elastic your definition of punk is, something like four punk acts. World music was also represented fully with five albums (eight if you include previous years). The most glaring absence is hip-hop—particularly mainstream hip-hop—represented twice each by Serengeti and Homeboy Sandman with two mainstream scores by M.I.A. and Eminem. On the one hand, I did dislike a large portion of the hip-hop I heard this year, but on the other I have to admit I failed to revisit most of what I found between tolerable and enjoyable. For example, I’m keen on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. I should probably give Earl Sweatshirt more ear time. The incredibly gay Le1f and Cakes da Killa are fascinating for at least their presentation. By the same token, I never got to Pusha T because of some mixtape I didn’t like. Danny Brown might be clever but he annoys the shit out of me. Jay-Z half-assed so hard motherfuckers wanna fine him.
Nevertheless, I put on those punk albums more than anything else. Vampire Weekend probably made the objectively superior record, but Ezra Koenig’s appeal to detail doesn’t negate the pure adrenaline Kathleen Hanna’s The Julie Ruin delivers to my central nervous system. Deerhunter, Superchunk, and Parquet Courts do more for me in 30 seconds than what Arcade Fire do in 30 minutes on Reflector. And some of my other top choices might confuse: few people enjoy Matangi the way I do, even fewer mildly appreciative of Nanobots, and almost no one, so far as I can tell, likes or has heard of Wussy. Not to mention that if any jazz ever found its way onto a mainstream publication’s list, it was Colin Stetson’s glitchstorm New History Warfare, which completely glosses over some higher-profile jazz acts like Moppa Elliot’s Mostly Other People Do the Killing, who had two stunning records released last year. Truth be told, my list is so far left of center that I can hardly think it useful to anyone who is aware of the much larger world of music criticism. It’s probably more disconnected from the popular candidates of yesteryear, but I think it’s a case of having spread myself too thin. There are too many records I know deserve more attention: Kasey Musgraves, Pistol Annies, Chance the Rapper, Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga, and a hundred more. Sure, I put in a lot of listening time this past year—probably more than I ever have—yet that did result in making more snap judgments than I’m comfortable with and led me down the path of a lot of junk records I had no business listening to in the first place.
So the plan for this year is to be a tad less adventurous. No more seeking out new junk I have no reason to investigate other than fanciful cover art, at least not if I know I should go play that new Springsteen one more time or check out the pop outfit everyone’s swooning over at the moment. Over the past month I’ve spent more time playing the music I want to play and pursuing musical threads I’m actually interested in pursuing, and it’s reminded me—after the constant barrage of new albums—what exactly it is about new music that gets my rocks off.
*Not to mention the 100+ releases I experienced for the first time from years past.
**Not that the British inclusion in Metacritic doesn’t help or add value, but it is the reason why drivel like Arctic Monkeys’ AM is allowed to sit in eleventh place.
***There were additional A Minuses I handed out earlier in the year that I’ve since decided against: Billy Bragg and Jose James. Additionally, I haven’t posted a review of Eminem’s MMLP 2 yet, but will soon.