Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ron Paul is the Cause of and Solution to Everything That Ails Us

Over at Reason, Brian Doherty makes a strong but inevitably unpersuasive argument for simply ignoring Ron Paul's endorsement and possible authorship of decades' worth of racist, conspiracist newsletters--an argument which is, by extension, an argument for just sort of resigning ourselves to the sinister nuttiness of the entire Ron Paul phenomenon. Doherty's argument goes a little something like this: yes, racism is bad. But you know what's worse? The drug war:

And, more importantly, I believe it's less important to beat up on and condemn a certain set of powerless and marginalized people who think and believe some nasty things everyone agrees are wrong than it is to beat up on and condemn the set of incredibly powerful people who actually act to commit crimes and rights-violation and damage to life across the globe who everyone thinks are perfectly right to do so. And Ron Paul is the only candidate with any public traction and fans who condemns and would fight to stop such crimes, from the drug war to non-defensive overseas wars to armed assaults on people because they sell raw milk to rampant violations of American's civil liberties and privacy to an organization in charge of our money supply that uses that power to scuttle the entire world economy and bailout its buddies.
And right he is, sort of (not down with that bit about the Fed at the end....). The drug war is the single most appalling perversity in American politics. It turns millions of productive citizens into criminals, and virtually every politician into a shameless hypocrite. At least in theory, American liberalism is about fighting against militaristic, neo-imperialist policies that trample civil liberties, buoy the prison-industrial complex, provide a tacit endorsement of widespread tax evasion, and exert a grossly disproportionate effect on minorities and the poor. At least in theory, American conservatism is about fighting policies that waste tens of billions in taxpayer dollars, mock the very concept of states' rights, and vastly expand the power of every level of government. And while the beauty of American democracy is that it forces liberals and conservatives to compromise their own deeply-held principles in the name of some greater social good, what's disgusting about American drug policy is that it depends upon every major politician of either ideological stripe constantly violating these principals in the name of allowing the NYPD to harass black and Hispanic New Yorkers to its heart's content, enabling the Justice Department to funnel assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. There's a widely-circulated picture of our current president puffing on what's probably a spliff, but Obama's former enjoyment of a relatively mild controlled substance hasn't stopped his government from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. Michael Bloomberg famously admitted to liking pot--but once he made it to Gracie Mansion, he found no contradiction in presiding over a racist, despicable and probably unconstitutional stop-and-frisk campaign.

Nothing makes me more cynical about politics than the near-universal hypocrisy over illegal drugs. No one is willing to stand on principle, even when ideology and plain human decency (and, more often than not, science) demand it. Ron Paul is the leading--and possibly only-- exception. Doherty is right that this is an incredible, and even historic moment in American politics--hell, America's highest-profile civil libertarian and drug war opponent is about to win a presidential primary in one of the most conservative states in the country! And with our congress on the brink of more or less criminalizing the entire Internet, this is an encouraging development, maybe even the kind of encouraging development whose provenance I can convince myself to ignore.

But I can't ignore it. Once known, things cannot be un-known, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying.

Here's what I can't un-know. I can't un-know a long, torturous, conversation (or political dispute or whatever) I had with a Paul supporter in DC a little over a year ago. He was an articulate enough chap, but when I brought up the newsletter controversy his argument was something along the lines of an elaborate "so what?" What kind of person, I wondered, could possibly remain indifferent to the fact that their favorite politician gave his imprimatur to every sort of virulent racist filth for like, 15 solid years? Doherty is intellectually honest enough not to be indifferent, but I wonder if the same can be said of the Paulite rank-and-file.

I can't un-know an even more torturous run-in with a Paulite at an oyster bar in New Orleans. He was sitting alone at the end of this long, communal table, and it turned out he was an army officer who had once been sent to look for POWs in Vietnam back in the mid-90s. It also turned out this person was sort of insane. I let him rant for awhile about how Social Security was unconstitutional before politely altering him to the possibility that President Ron Paul would strip him of the social safety net he earned through his military service. He said he didn't care, that the country was on a fiscal and moral knife's edge and that the difference between Paul supporters and the rest of humanity is that they're willing to make the kind of steep individual and collective sacrifices that us latte-drinkers would never even dream of making ourselves. This is an odd and perhaps incoherent philosophy, this idea of negating American greatness in order to salvage it. The girlfriend delicately pointed this out to him. "You're not engaging with me," he said with a vaguely violent lilt in his voice, and a less-vaguely craven look in his eye. "You're not respecting me." A few moments later, I thanked him for his service and faked a stomach ache. Unfortunately, before we learned this person was nuts we'd told him we were off to hear Walter Wolfman Washington at the nearby Maple Leaf Lounge, and I spent the rest of the night nursing a tangible fear that the guy would come looking for us.

I can't un-know the Paul supporters I met in the wild, western fringes of Zucotti Park, people who, unfortunately for libertarianism in America, were among the sanest Paulites I've ever met. Most of all, I can't un-know this, which is one of the most bizarre documents of this entire presidential campaign (a campaign that's produced its fair share of bizarre documents, mind you), the gist of which is this: forget Paul's racist newsletters. Those were politics. What you should really worry about is what Paul actually believes, namely that the Jews pushed the U.S. into World War II and shouldn't have a country of their own, that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake, and that the CIA coordinated the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Paul's craziness, and the craziness of many of both his chief (Andrew Sullivan, Lew Rockwell, Mondoweiss, for fuck's sake) and supernumerary supporters, is just ridiculously well-established at this point. I'm abstractly sympathetic to the narrowly utilitarian view that small pockets of crazy are insignificant so long as they stand a chance of unsettling an entire system of crazy. On the other hand, so what if the drug war just happens to be more racist than Ron Paul? Isn't it curious--or rather, disturbing--that this sort of question even needs to be posed in the first place? The question that Ron Paul's racism poses for me isn't "so what?" so much as "what does it say about our political system and society--what kinds of horrifying, horrifying things does it say--that one of our most reasonable mainstream political figures is also by far our craziest?"

If I could speculate on that for a moment. A couple of weeks ago, popular former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson left the Republican party to seek the libertarian nomination for president. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever accused Johnson of being a racist, and had he prevailed in the Republican primary, he would have been the first major party presidential nominee to have successfully climbed Mount Everest. Now, Johnson never had any realistic shot of getting the Republican nomination, and he was fairly clueless about how to organize a campaign and present himself to a voting public that still has basically no idea who he is (if he had a clue, Johnson would have run for Senate in New Mexico as a Republican, won, patiently built a large and well-organized national organization the way that Ron Paul has, switched parties, and then run as a Libertarian in 2020 and 2024). But he was and is a kind of Ron Paul without all the moral hazard, a man whose libertarianism is a genuine function of his cosmopolitanism, rather than the product of a poisonous paleoconservative milieu. Paul has succeeded partly because of a shrewd refusal to distance himself from what Doherty euphemistically calls the "sociological overlap between the radical politics of libertarianism and certain other radical beliefs." But Johnson's political career is basically over because he naively believed that he could turn himself into a national figure by force of argument, or by force of ideas. Alas, people are the willing conduit of ideas, and ideas die when no one volunteers to carry them forward.

And in the long run, they also tend to die when the people carrying them forward are, for the most part, crazy. See the truly depressing thing about Paulism is that it entrusts the most essential and eminently reasonable ideas--ideas that need to be discussed and even acted upon, for the greater good of both this country and the world at large--to some of the most loathsome figures in American public life. Ron Paul's apologists want us to believe that a little craziness is the price we have to pay for eventual political and fiscal sanity. But this is a false choice, and until it's recognized as such, I suspect that the drug war, authoritarian policing of the Internet, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant hysteria and the other evils that Paul supposedly stands against will be with us for a long time to come.

This week's song isn't a song so much as one very important (libertarian) thought:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Things That Have Either Pissed Me Off or Troubled Me Over the Course Of Today

Lightening round. Let's start at the beginning. Fuck it, let's start with some batting practice.

-The first website I visited today was Pitchfork Media, where I read possibly one of the most bloodboiling sentences in the history of music criticism. Whilst lauding Ellie Friedberger's Last Summer as one of the best albums of 2011, someone by the name of Bob Mittchum secreted this flabbergasting bit of counter-factual, recent music history:

Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger aren't twins, but in the context of the Fiery Furnaces, it's not always easy to tell their sensibilities apart. This year offered a litmus test of which sibling is responsible for what, as Matthew released a series of hard-to-bear solo-instrument experiments while Eleanor released this pop gem-- a reminder of the Furnaces' broad appeal before their grandma scared almost everyone off.

Yeah, 2005's Rehearsing My Choir really "scared almost everyone off." Is this guy kidding? Pitchfork scored the next three Fiery Furnaces albums in the mid-to-upper 7s; I've seen Fiery Furnaces play at DC's spacious 9:30 club and at the same stage at Bonnaroo where MGMT and Vampire Weekend performed. Both shows were, shockingly, post-2005! No one was "scared off" by a little-heard experimental dalliance that represents a whopping 1/9th of the Furnace's official discography. Yes, it's true that the Blueberry Boat is the only Furnaces album to score over a 9 on Pitchfork--but it's also true that Blueberry Boat is, in most people's minds an order of magnitude better than every other Fiery Furnaces album. And it's also true that the Furnaces are something of a cult item, and that Rehearsing My Choir didn't really change any of their fans' perceptions of them.

So what could possess this guy to conclude that the Furnaces' career was derailed by Rehearsing My Choir? I don't think Mittchum is being lazy here. Neither do I think that he actually believes what he's writing. I think he's a music critic, and that music critics and critics in general feel it's their privalage and their duty to impose a sort of over-arching theory of everything upon the public consciousness (example: Nirvana killed hair metal)--and I also think that some and in some respect all of these theories are total bullshit (example: Nirvana killed hair metal!). I also believe that writers who believe it's their duty shoehorn huge volumes of tangentially-related information into a coherent, believable narrative are also prone to shoehorning small volumes of tangentially-related information into a coherent, believable narrative. The story of a single band is just as vulnerable to a critic's errant mythologizing as the story of entire genres or entire historical periods.

That's what's happening here. A writer at the most influential music outfit on earth just decided that the Fiery Furnaces were a plucky indie pop outfit who threw it all away on a career-scarring experimental misstep of Metal Machine Music-like significance (see what I did there?). And Lo, his word became flesh. This is why people hate Pitchfork, and why I recently got into a Twitter spat with a grown adult (who writes movie review for The Washington Times, I should add) who actually, unironically believed that Pitchfork is responsible for the proliferation of Dubstep. Pitchfork views itself as the kind of publication that's entitled to narrativize the whole of musical culture in real time, and we are too timid or brainwashed or uninformed to question them. The result: terrible, counter-factual music criticism cropping up in the most widely-read Pitchfork feature of the year.

-Has anyone noticed that HBO Go is the worst-designed and glitchiest media player possibly ever? It crashes, it pauses mysteriously, it flashes a "Press ESC to exit full-screen mode" notice whenever you're in full-screen mode that no human mortal can remove, at least on my girlfriend's computer. There's no "play next episode" feature. Sometimes the color gradient changes, such that a richly chromatic flash-back to late-60 Newark in the "The Sopranos" looks like the fly-worn print of a mid-70s B-movie. Sometimes the audio is out of sync. Sometimes I feel vaguely cheated, like HBO knew that people would pay like anything for the right to watch every hour of every original program ever aired on HBO (other than "The Larry Sanders Show") and that they held the exclusive right to offer such a service, and therefore decided that they could afford to cut back on the quality of their product without incurring any fiduciary consequences. And then I'm like wait a second, I don't even pay for HBO Go. Why does it's shittiness rankle me so much? Why?

-This. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Jaromir Jagr had been traded to the Capitals. I was in like 8th grade at the time, and I was listening to Sportstalk 980 on the Bose in my house's living room, and Al Kokin or someone was like "we have breaking news, and get ready cuz you're not gonna believe this. The Washington Capitals have traded for Jaromir Fucking Jagr. You know, the guy who barbecues us in the playoffs every year? Oh, and guess who we traded for him THAT'S RIGHT CHRIS BEECH, WHO YOU HAVE NEVER EVEN HEARD OF. The Pens are moving to Nashville next year after all! Stanley Cup, baby. Might as well tell the engraver to start practicing his Konawalchuks."

OK so that's not what Al Kokin really said. The point is that the Jagr trade was supposed to usher in a hockey renaissance in DC. Instead, it commenced a five-year nightmare, much of which I witnessed in person, since by like 2004 the cost of an upper-level ticket at the MCI Center was like, $15. I have a Jagr jersey in my closet at home, and I'm not sure why I haven't burned it yet. I think it I wore it to a Caps game I'd get gently ribbed, if not outright jeered at by my section-mates.

-A few minutes ago, a Talent Acquisition Opportunities Manager or whatever the hell the big investment banks call their human resource drones called my girlfriend to set up an interview. Thanks to the world being on the brink of financial catastrophe, she recently lost her job at another, different big investment bank and is now seeking further employment. Did Friday work for her? Or better still, could she meet a Talent Acquisition Opportunities Director with regards to this exciting and lucrative career opportunity?

She could not. At least not on Monday--the girlfriend's grandmother is very ill, and only has about a week left to live. The girlfriend will be in Norfolk, Virginia on Monday. Monday will not work because of, as she put it, "a death in the family."

I could almost hear the TAOM's lips bunch into a sympathetic furrow, not because lip-bunching has a distinct or even detectable aural signature, but because, for the sake of my own faith in humanity, I just have to believe that every human being is subject to some sort of completely visceral, completely human reaction upon the first-hand news that another human being has departed this earth. What I didn't hear (and you can hear like every word of every conversation held on a Blackberry so long as you're within like 10 feet of the thing) was an "I'm sorry to hear that." For this TAOM, death is no different from traffic or a delayed flight or any other uncontrollable circumstance that could prevent a potential target from attending a face-to-face. I just have to believe that this guy had some reaction to the news of "a death in the family"--but all I can do is believe, since the fellow offered no evidence of any reaction whatsoever.

Investment banks are like cathedrals. Their headquarters are spires of hope and progress that reach skywards, towards the heavens, and when I look up at the soft granite pediment of Credit Suisse's clocktower or at the glacial, sloping peak of Bank of America's midtown offices, I'm reminded that the Kingdom of God really is within me, and that prosperity and comfort and the salvation it offers are attainable so long as I can find it within myself to achieve them. But cathedrals are dehumanizing. They make you feel small and powerless, which is why I prefer the cramped and unadorned quarters of the Joseph Caro Synagogue in Tzfat to the loftiest and most spectacular Gothic masterpiece. That phone call, and that lack of an "I'm sorry," that lack of any discernible reaction to the news of a potential employee's family member's death--it's a reminder that the higher the spires loom, the smaller we all are in comparison.

Today's song: a fairly normal-sounding Fiery Furnaces song from 2007.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Orgy Continues: My Year in Music, Part II


-Atlas Sound, Parallax: Review after review lauded Parallax for eschewing the weirdness of Bradford Cox's first two Atlas Sound albums, which had more in common with droning Deerhunter breakthrough Cryptograms than with any of the band's more recent and more consonant work. I'm not sure if I buy the idea that non-weirdness automatically equates with progress in Atlas Sound's case. But Atlas Sound and Deerhunter have evolved in tandem, and the third AS full-length has much in common with last year's monumental Halcyon Digest: the songwriting is tighter and the missteps less glaring than in the past, while Cox's voice continues to find a range and degree of vocal nuance that simply didn't seem possible for him a couple albums ago. This album lacks the experimental exuberance of Let the Blind Lead the Blind, and it doesn't have a best-of-the-decade worthy track like Logos's "Quick Canal." But as a cult follower of Bradford Cox--who is, in my view, a potentially generation-defining artist--I couldn't just like, exclude this from a massive, 6,000-word year-in-review recap.

-Bill Callahan, Apocalypse: This year brought the death of Bert Jansch, a British singer-songwriter best known for his work with the groundbreaking 70s folk (and jazz flute!) outfit Pentangle. So it's appropriate that one of the best albums of the year is so reminiscent of post-Pentangle Jansch, who released a series of brooding, meandering folk records that the likes of Bonny Prince Billy and Justin Vernon obviously gave a careful listen to. But I think I like Apocalypse better than most of either artist's work. The songs are knotty and bleak, with every wandering flute and fiddle, every quiety screetching guitar (the mix on this album is astonishing--it's hard to get guitars to quietly screech), gesturing towards some distant yet rapidly-approaching catastrophe. Callahan's voice is a kind of smoker's barratone, laden with the folk singer-fatalism that a project like this all but requires.

-Clams Casino, Instrumental Mixtape: Who thought the guy who does Lil B's beats would distinguish himself in what's been a bumper year for loud and weird shit? I certainly didn't, although it all makes total sense to me now: Tim Hecker, Onehtrix Point Never and Nicholas Jaar made noise albums that were highly accomplished but sorta brutal to like, actually listen to. Replica produced a few inquisitive "hmmms" for me, but Instrumental Mixtape works on so many levels. At times, Clams' beats are satisfyingly ambient, even Eno-like; at others, they're tightly-layered and highly abstract tone poems that would almost be profaned by the inclusion of a human voice. There aren't many bangers on this one, although Clams is certainly capable of banging when he wants to--the beat for Main Attrakionz's "Illest Alive" has to be one of the sickest things I've heard this year; unlike with Hecker or Jaar, there isn't a track on this that isn't thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. In fact, this mixtape is so good that it's made me reassess my overall ambivalence towards the entire blog rap phenomenon.

-Tombs, Path of Totality: There are individual tracks on this one where Tombs rushes through 30 years of metal history in the course of about 3 minutes--at times this sounds like industrial-period Swans, at others, it sludgier and druggier than the Melvins. But this album deserves mention because it's an ass-kicker that transcends music nerdery. As soon as I heard "Bloodletters" (which has about 8 distinct movements, despite being only like 4 minutes long), I knew I was listening to the most epic rock album of the year.

-DJ Quick, The Book of David: My friend Dov Friedman lamented that this album probably wouldn't show up in that many end-of-year lists, and he's pretty much been right so far. Nineties nostalgia earns you critical plaudits if you're making a sequel to Cuban Linx; weirdly enough, its an apparent detriment if you're one of the few bona fide survivors of the 90s rap scene (i.e. someone who isn't dead or a sellout) who doesn't also happen to be a member of the Wu Tang Clan. Even more disgustingly, I suspect The Book of David was totally forgotten about in the midst of the hipsterization of rap that occurred this year--the kids who should have been listening to a true master like Quik were listening to Shabaaz Palaces and A$AP Rockey instead, which is fucked up, to say the least. This album, is lyrically dexterous, masterfully produced, and full of totally non-ironic gunshot sound effects, making it exhibit A for How It's Done, as far as making an artistically-accomplished yet readily listenable rap album is concerned.

-TV On the Radio, Nine Types of Light: I can't write about this album without also writing about how much I liked its predecessor, Dear Science, an album the kids will be grooving to 50 years from now if there's any justice in this world, and also one of the few non-sanctimonious and non-terrible protest albums of the past decade. TVOTR released the platonic ideal of a follow-up album this year. Nine Types is less ambitious and more subdued than its precedessor, but it's hardly a drop-off or a letdown. It's more restrained and more introspective than past efforts--more adult, as one reviewer put it. What makes TVOTR a band of such generational importance is that they can move in this sort of a direction without squandering even an ounce of hard-earned good will.



10.) Radiohead, The King of Limbs

There was a time in my life when I wanted every Radiohead album to sound like Amnesiac, but I'm past it now. Today, I understand that Radiohead serves one purpose and one purpose only within the context of this enormous and highly atomized pop culture of ours, and that's to take other people's brilliant ideas--usually whatever's on the weirdest outer fringes of contemporary electronic music--and repackage them as only Radiohead can. Kid A was a glorious repackaging of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher; Radiohead's originality, such as it is, comes from their ability to link strange, electronic sounds to tangible human feelings and experiences, and to do so within the context of mindblowingly strange and awesome pop music. Similarly: Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma, which included a Thom Yorke guest spot, is a more original but less effective version of what Radiohead is trying to accomplish in The King of Limbs. Dubstep--or at least the artistically-ambitious, jazz-tinged dubstep that Flying Lotus practices--percolates this album, and when it came out I joked that Yorke had probably finished recording his track with Flying Lotus and said "yes, this is what the entire next Radiohead album should sound like!" And sound like it it does, except with Radiohead-level songwriting, and a Radiohead-like sense of total alienation from everything and everyone, and an eerie, Radiohead-like beauty that comes out in tracks like "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost," and which no band has ever come close to duplicating. So Limbs isn't Amnesiac or even In Rainbows. But it's still Radiohead doing what it does best, and for that alone it deserves a spot on this list.

9.) Wild Flag, Wild Flag

The one Sleater-Kinney record that Wild Flag's debut is constantly compared to is The Woods, which rocks at near Zeppelin-like levels and is widely considered one of the greatest albums of the 2000s. I guess I like the Sleater-Kinney-anchored supergroup Wild Flag's debut because, as the Zeppelin comparison and as the above music video both suggest, it channels a certain purity that's been lost over the past decade of hype-cycles and firsties and genres that can't push past the six-month mark. Just think, for a second, about how few truly great albums by traditional rock four-pieces have been released over the past 10 years or so. This Is It and The Wrens' The Meadowlands come to mind, as does The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America. But the entire notion of purity and traditionalism in rock has been under attack for awhile now, whether through the popist vs. rockist debates that critics often find themselves mired in, or through the unspoken sense that there's something fundametally reactionary about straightforward rock music. Wild Flag's debut is a straightforward rock album; there's nothing that's experiemental or ground-breaking about it. It's just four immensely talented musicians ripping through one awesome song after another, which wouldn't seem so refreshing to me if this album were anything less than flawless. It's tight and raw and in just the right amounts, and the down-tempo tracks are just as memorable as the up-tempo ones. Most importantly, it's impossible for me not to air-guitar while listening to it.

8.) Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra.

Tyler, The Creator was lauded for his bracing self-analysis on Bastard--in fact, I lauded him for his bracing self-analysis on Bastard just one post ago. But it's Odd Future bandmate (or collective-mate, or whatever) Frank Ocean who released this year's most arresting confessional pop record. Ocean is just as paranoid and emotionally numb as Tyler, but his pyshic tumult comes across via actual poetry rather than via a series of increasingly sociopathic tangents. "Novacane," a love song about an encounter in which neither person wants to feel anything, or is even capable of feeling anything, subverts usual R&B themes using some of the best R&B songwriting of this or any year. "Songs for Women" is a slow jam about how Ocean uses slow jams as a weapon of emotional manipulation; "Swim Good," as I mentioned the other day, is a radio-friendly banger about suicide. But Nostalgia, Ultra. isn't maudlin or self-pitying; unlike Bastard, it doesn't draw gratuitious attention to its creator's problems. How does it pull this off? By being, first and foremost, a brilliant pop album. Hell, "Novacane" even got some radio play.

7.) Liturgy, Aesthetica

I understand that Liturgy is too hipster-friendly for the metal community, and that Columbia alum Hunter Hendrix's theory of transcendent humanism has turned some people off, not because of its substance, mind you, but because it's an apparent violation of fragile metal sensibilities even to have a theory in the first place. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Liturgy's been smeared as pretentious Williamsburgian garbage, a claim richly deserving of my Bullshit Music-Related Smear of the Year award. See, Aesthetica would be pretentious if it didn't all but confirm Hendrix's assertion that metal offers a possible entry-way to transcendent experience. Parts of this album, like the primal chanting on the vocal track "Glass Earth," point to primative religion as a possible inspiration for the band's sound, as well as its overall ambitions: Liturgy wants you to experience something very specific when you're listening to them, and this is music you're meant to get lost in, music you're supposed to be completely blown away by and sucked into. This album aims to duplicate the sense of ineffable mystery you might feel when staring up at the sky on a clear night in the middle of the desert, and amazingly, it delivers: Tracks like "Glory Bronze" reach the frantic, blissed out-heights that every loud rock band strives towards, while "True Will" juxtaposes Gregorian chant with a whirlwind of guitar, drums and vocals. Hendrix's point here is that Gregorian chant and death metal are both reaching towards the same notion of aesthetic and spiritual transcendence--listening to the utterly mindblowing Aesthetica, this claim doesn't seem pretentious so much as empirically true.

6.) P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake

If this had been released in say, 2006, P.J. Harvey's exploration of the relationship between war and English national identity would have gone down as the greatest protest album of the era, by far. Even now, very little from this or any other historical period competes with it as a popular musical examination of the cost and overall meaning of war. Parts of this album are just incredibly difficult--that bit about "soldiers falling like lumps of meat" is the most disturbing piece of imagery to appear in a pop song this year, Tyler, The Creator's ouvre included. Interestingly, Let England Shake isn't about war in general so much as a specific war, and references to "the ANZAC trench" and bloodbaths concerning strategically-pointless stretches of beach make this album a sustained meditation on World War I, the most traumatic conflict in English history. This specific historical focus has the paradoxical effect of upping its present-day urgency. A war that occurred nearly 100 years ago was so scarring that it can serve as a stand-in for the horrors and pointlessness of war in general. Let England Shake gives us an idea of what kind of scars our current conflicts might be inflicting upon us.

5.) Iceage, New Brigade

I'll honestly be shocked if Iceage can match this the next time out. New Brigade channels pure, unadulterated youth; raw, rattling, and over in under 25 minutes, it's an album that could only be made by a trio of 16-year-olds who don't know any better. But what happens when they do know better--when the production is half-competent, when their work is clogged with No Age-style ambient filler tracks, when they try to stretch song lengths out to over two minutes? What will happen when they can no longer access the youthful energy and angst that power this album? I don't want to think that far ahead, especially since I'm not through listening to Iceage's first effort. A perfectly-paced bombardment of expertly-crafted punk songs, even the album's sub-2 minute tracks (there are four of them) are multi-part jewels of rock songwriting. The band's youthfulness is what makes New Brigades exhilerating, but it's Iceage's uncannily mature craftsmanship that makes this album one of the five best of the year.

4.) Elzhi, Elmatic

I'm of the belief that you're gonna remake Illmatic, you'd better have a damn good reason, as well as about 40 minutes worth of something interesting to say. One of the surprises of the year--hell, maybe even THE surprise of the year--is that a former member of Slum Village who I hadn't even heard of six months ago is equal to the challenge. Elzhi cops some of the beats and some of the pacing and themes from Nas's genre-defining classic, but he does justice to his source material by infusing Illmatic with a new sense of relevance: "Detroit State of Mind" recounts the dangers and difficulties of living in America's most depressed city (where "pimps turn into pastors" and where "even the shorties are pulling glocks from their boxin' shorts") and the entire album is a picaresque about the struggles of life in a devastated corner of urban America. What makes this album really special is that it's not the act of blasphemy that it arguably should have been. Elmatic is a far-reaching survey of the social and psychic ills of its day--just like Illmatic was. Elzhi raps about "Roaches in the ashtray toss and gettin' fast cash/The ski mask way for those who never passed class" in his version of "It Ain't Hard to Tell," one of countless lines in which Elzhi replicates Nas's tightly-wound and at-times impenetrably dense (and internally-rhyming!) lyrical style in the course of evoking his own individual experiences. As lines like this suggest, Elmatic is part tribute, part exercise in intertextuality--and in the end, it's more wholly original than just about anything else released this year.

3.) Wye Oak, Civilian

I usually hate albums that are just too heavy to enjoy, regardless of how musically accomplished they may be--like I couldn't make it past the first few tracks of Antony and the Johnson's The Crying Light, which is quite good I hear. Wye Oak's third full length flirts with the kind of over-the-top downer-dom that's doomed other artists in the past. But it never makes the full leap into Will Oldham or Antony and the Johnsons territory for one very simple reason: this album is just a devastating listen. The vocal arrangements are reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins, and Wye Oak's deft balancing of abrasive noise and whispered, even prayer-like lyrical content reminded me a lot of late-period Radiohead. But it does this album a disservice to compare it to anything else, because Civilian sounds so little like anything else. I know of no other album that's simultaneously so icy and so heartfelt--fuzz and guitar feedback intervene in some of the Civilian's tenderest moments, while Jenn Wasner's voice can go from soothing to frigid to totally otherworldly in the space of a single track. This album's sonic and emotional range is downright exhausting: some tracks have a quiet, funereal quality to them, others thunder and soar. Even so, its sublimity is never compromised. Civilian speaks with an intensity that's all its own.

2.) E.M.A., Past Life Martyred Saints

Speaking of albums that are literally unlike anything I've ever heard: E.M.A's solo debut continues a recent trend of bands from the middle of nowhere producing music that's weirder and fresher than anything produced on the coasts (Oklahoma natives Evangelicals' magesterial The Evening Descends is the signal example of this). Erika M. Anderson is originally from South Dakota, I think, and her first effort is virtually impossible to categorize. Is it folk? Noise rock? Noise-folk? Post-modern country gospel? Is this a singer-songwriter confessional, perhaps? You could attach these labels and about a half-dozen others to this album (album highlight "Milkmen" has clear industrial overtones) without adequately describing what it actually sounds like or does. I'm comfortable saying that this is a very personal album about love and dissappointment and, as she sings in "California," "what it's like to be small town and gay" (assuming E.M.A. is gay, which is far from obvious). And I guess I'm comfortable calling this "indie folk," although so much of this album is impossible to categorize. Even the record's themes are hard to pin down exactly; I'm about ten listens in, and I'm still discovering new corners of Ms. Anderson's psyche to explore. This is powerful, soul-baring stuff, and considering what a listener goes through over the course of this album, the slow-building, even apocalyptic set-closer "Red Star" far and away the most cathartic song of the year.

1.) The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient

Back in the 90s, there was a silly trend of singer-songwriters being hailed as the "new Dylan," as if every generation needed, just fucking needed someone to singer-songwrite all their anxieties and hopes and dreams and shit. The real "new Dylans," I think, are artists who can do that in new and counter-intuitive ways--who convey anxieties and hopes and dreams through noise or obfuscation or even straight-up sarcasm (Black Flag's Damaged is fairly Dylinian in spirit, no?). Slave Ambient is proof that TWOD is a true New Dylan. Their second full-length is a droning and often disturbing jaunt through the wasteland we all find ourselves living in, and it it surveys the psychic and physical ruination that's characterized the past few years using a folk-singer's unique position of detachment and spirit of socio-political critique. But that's not why this is the best album of the year. This is the best album of the year because it's absolutely fucking gorgeous, regardless of whether it's droning or rocking or wandering through a six minute road song. Parts of Slave Ambient are country blues, other parts are arena rock, others are shoegaze. But it remains a work of unnerving aesthetic perfection, regardless of what genre it happens to be working within. No other album released this year has married epicism with urgency more beautifully or more searingly than Slave Ambient, the best album of 2011.



5.) Agalloch, Marrow of the Spirit (was Four Tet, There Is Love In You). I command you to drop whatever you're doing and listen to all 17 minutes of "Black Lake Nidstang. "

4.) Woods, At Echo Lake (was Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot, the Son of Chico Dusty) Remind me why people are so far up Fleet Fox's ass when Woods is a band that exists?

3.) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (was Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest) I've decided it's not cool to hate this album anymore, especially since it's got like, 8 bangers on it. BANGERS.

2.) Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (was Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma) The album that made me hate most dubstep, while simultaneously causing me to appreciate dubstep as a genre.

1.) Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (was Jenelle Monae, The ArchAndroid) I still like Microcastle better, but this is objectively the best album ever released by maybe the best band working today. If there's a God out there, my kids will be jealous that I got to see them in concert like four times, rather than wondering who the fuck Deerhunter was when I force them to listen to this.


Panda Bear, Tomboy: This album was so bad that it actually made me reconsider not only the rest of Panda Bear's work, but the rest of Animal Collective's work as well. Well it wasn't bad, per se. It's just that it's the end result of the kind of music that An Col has experimented with for the past decade, and that Panda Bear perfected on Person Pitch. For someone who believes that these experiments were worthwhile and actually historically significant, it was a bit of a wake-up call to hear them culminate in a hazy, uninteresting Chillwav-ian blur.


Shabazz Palaces, Black Up: M83 can't win this, because contrary to what getting a 9.2 on Pitchfork would suggest, most outlets gave Hurry Up, We're Dreaming decidedly mixed reviews. In contrast, everyone seemed to love a generic and fairly inoffensive dupstep-infused rap album put out by a former member of Digible Planets--which, for extra hipster points, was released by Sub Pop! Sub Pop releasing a rap album sure is interesting, isn't it? No, it isn't. At least not in this case.


Jurgen Muller, Science of the Sea

In 1979, a German Oceanographer went out on a houseboat and recorded an album about his life's passion--namely the sea and, more specifically, the process of observing the sea. The results were limited to 100 LPs or so until Digitalis re-released the album this year. You have to wonder where this would rank in the annals of contemporary music if we'd had 30 years to process it; chances are it would a repertory favorite for the Bang on a Cans of the world. Once "Black Lake Nidstang" is done, do yourself a favor and listen to the entire thing.


Imelda May, Mayhem: I'll admit this Welch rockabilly album is sort of breezy. But just look at the albums on my top 10 list. A lot of them are pretty depressing, no? Mayhem is not. In fact, it's kind of a blast. Though it's mainstream and predictable enough to not be on like, any end-of-year lists, this record just oozes charisma and fun, more so than any other release this year.






But obviously:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Year in Music, Or: A Soon-to-be-Annual One-Man Orgy of Self-Regard

Nineteen-ninety one was one of the greatest years in music history--just look at the Pazz and Jop results and weep at the past two decades of apparently unabated cultural decline.

Now I was only three years old at the time and remember exactly nothing prior to like 1997, but '91 isn't mythologized as a period of any pivotal or historical creative foment on par with say, the folk revival of the early 60s, or the emergence of punk in the mid-70s. But 1991 was nevertheless a year in which something pivotal and historic did take place. I'd argue that 1991 was the year in which the sounds of the 80s underground finally took full control of the pop-cultural landscape. Grunge and shoegaze weren't like, invented in 1991, but the high-water marks of both genres (Nevermind and Loveless, no duh) were released that year, and they're arguably the two most important and influential albums of the decade. Similarly: Metallica rode just an unreal hot streak through the entire 1980s, but it was their 1991 self-titled megahit that earned the band the mainstream spotlight and popular adulation that a sociopathic thrash-metal act simply wouldn't have gotten, had they been anything less than geniuses as far as streamlining and domesticating their sound (or "selling out," if you prefer) was concerned. R.E.M. found themselves in a not dissimilar position--I've seen 1991's Out of Time listed as their best album, and I've seen it listed as one of their worst. It sounds nothing like Murmur or even their later work for IRS, and it's probably fated (unfairly, in my opinion) to be the most polarizing record in their catalog: Out of Time was the kind of popular blockbuster that pushed R.E.M.'s sound in more of a radio-friendly direction, but it's also the darkest and most personal album the band ever recorded, a jarring contrast to (although not necessarily an improvement upon) the jittery, reverb-heavy and less visceral (and therefore less accessible) college rock sound the band had pioneered.

And fuck, I haven't even mentioned my two favorite albums of 1991: The Mekons' Curse of the Mekons, which has been unjustly forgotten about and is now out of print, and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, which isn't the best album of 1991 (or is it? I could argue...), but is certainly the one I've listened to the most over the years, and far and away the one I'd most like to listen to right this very second. In fact, I'm listening to it right now. Laughing Stock completed Talk Talk's transformation from schlocky new-wave pop act to I don't even know what. Late-period Talk Talk--and Laughing Stock in particular--sounds like Radiohead and Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire and pretty much every subsequent art rock band of any importance and ambition, and it also sounds like nothing else I've ever heard before. Captain Beefheart and Can both have that quality, I think, which is exclusive and suitably bizarre company for them.

Meanwhile, the Mekons had been around for over 15 years when Curse was released; their creative and in some ways philosophical turning point came during the British coal miners' strike of 1984. So 1991 was a year in which several well-established acts were either making their best music or their most interesting music, or the music that would earn them a well-deserved (although not widely-admired) measure of mainstream success. It was a year in which the developments of the previous decade came satisfyingly to a head, and the mainstreamification of shoegaze, post-punk, post-rock, grunge, gangsta rap (I haven't even mentioned The Low End Theory...), and progressive speed metal that occurred in 1991 had consequences that are still being felt today. Nineteen-ninety one was a year that changed music. Two-thousand nine, the year of the so-called Brooklyn Sonic Boom, could turn out to be another such year. Was 2011? And does it even matter if it was or not?

To digress for a moment: I'm beginning to realize that my journalism career, or at least this current version of my journalism career, is emotionally and financially unsustainable and therefore drawing to a rapid close. So during jogs and bikerides and long walks around the neighborhood I often turn the past few years over in my mind, going over the highlights and lowlights and wondering what this period in my life will mean to me like five years from now. One of the true highlights was my time as a frequent contributor to Impose Magazine back in college--a good friend of mine was the girlfriend (or at that point ex-girlfriend; I don't remember) of the magazine's editor, who had just graduated from Columbia with a degree in Comparative Literature and Society. He spoke German and French (or maybe French and Spanish; again, don't remember) and was a freakishly talented writer and electronic musician who had earned a degree from the most prestigious and exclusive humanities department of one of the most prestigious and exclusive universities on earth.

So naturally this wunderkind ended up editing a no-name Brooklyn-specific music website for virtually no pay. I say "of course," because when you write for a no-name Brooklyn-specific music website for virtually no pay (as I did for like two years back in college), you understand that underground music or DIY music or whatever you want to call it is actually the most important thing in the entire world, and that toiling in obscurity, overseeing a small staff of unpaid contributors, spending every night getting your hearing obliterated in beerstained lofts in the Greenpoint industrial flats and nearly asphyxiating at a Black Lips concert at Market Hotel in the middle of July (OK, that one happened to me...) are privileges to be cherished.

Today Impose is probably the best music website out there; what my friend Jamie Peck aptly called one of the few primary sources for people interested in what's going on in the American DIY scene (Pitchfork, by comparison, is a secondary source at best). When I contributed to Impose, it was something of ramshackle operation with only 3 or 4 regular writers and much less content and very little in the way of a national focus, at least compared to now. One could even say that Impose had the same DIY ethos as the bands, promoters and venues it was covering; energetic and raw, it was certainly like, of the scene in an unusually organic and non-bullshit sense. It was ascetic and selfless and classically Bohemian--i.e., the people who wrote for it cared single-mindedly about inhabiting their astonishingly rich cultural environment, at the expense of the more mundane and more practically-important aspects of life.

Or maybe I'm only speaking for myself. Maybe I was the only one naive enough to care single-mindedly, or to see the Brooklyn underground as a kind of one massive artists co-op. See during the two years in which I was fairly deeply embedded in the Brooklyn music scene, I was astonished to learn that there was really no such thing as a "bad year" in music. I came to New York promising myself that if there was another Velvet Underground playing shows for a couple dozen people in a basement club, I'd find them. Instead, I found countless Velvet Undergrounds--Oneida, Deerhunter, No Age, Dan Deacon, Fuck Buttons, Cold Cave, Evangelicals, These Are Powers, Knyfe Hyts, Fucked Up, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Titus Adronicus, Talk Normal, bands that were doing new and interesting and mindblowing shit, shit that broadened my sense of what was possible in music, and that made the world seem like a more expansive and interesting and mysterious place as a result. The years that we call "good" in music--and, in sense, the albums that we call "good" --are years in which that feeling is felt by everyone, instead of by college students dumb enough to write for a no-name music magazine for free.

Now, a true underground in which ideas and personalities rub up against one another at close quarter with minimal fear of failure or embarrassment is constantly churning out bands that are capable of producing that feeling. So while there are no Lovelesses this year, there is Atlas Sound's Parallax and Tim Hecker's Ravedeath 1972, experiments in noisy sublimity that have a bit of Kevin Shields in them. There were no Neverminds, but we got Ice Age's New Brigades, which is brooding, defiant and relentless in a way that Nirvana once was. There is no Out of Time, but there was EMA's equally-harrowing Past Life Martyred Saints, which joins Out of Time in that small pantheon of truly great albums whose songs are predominantly down-tempo. And of course there are dozens of albums released this year that would scarcely have been imaginable twenty years ago.

This year produced few (well, no) obvious future classics. But contrary to my opening paragraph, that's not the best way to think about things. A lot of weird, fascinating and fucked up music came out this year, and when you cleave away the bullshit (bullshit=Pitchfork, twitter, blogs, the bizarre "lets find a new genre to freak the fuck out about every two weeks" fixation of much of the music press...), what you're left with is, thank God, a year like any other. And nothing less.

Now to my top 10 tracks. Next post, which I'll probably finish by Monday: Top 10 albums, plus miscellany

10.) The Field, "Burned Out" (from Looping State of Mind)

Brian Eno said that My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" (the closing track on the aforementioned Loveless) was "the vaguest music ever to have been a hit," a statement which hews to the Enovian conviction that vague, washed out sounds can coalesce into pop, even if the results sound nothing like pop as people normally experience it. "Burned Out" wins this year's Soon/Brian Eno Award for Vaguest Music That Can Possibly Be Considered Pop--the lyrics are unintelligible, while the rhythm is propulsive but repetitive, milking a certain disquiet out of its failure to meaningfully progress. No matter. Like "Soon," this song achieves a musical and emotional expansiveness that deliberately clashes with its meandering and monotonous quality. This song is the apogee of the Cologne sound, which enshrines monotony as a sort of high artistic value. The Field emerged from a musical milieu obsessed with how looping and repetition can be used to add psychic and emotional depth to electronic music, and this is one of the scene's most successful experiments to date, with the slow-building toy piano only intensifying what's already a transcendent avant-pop performance.

9.) The War on Drugs, "Come to the City" (from Slave Ambient)

What's nifty about this song is that it's basically a Woody Guthrie song. Imagine this one totally stripped of drum machines and synth, and excise the clattering, Joy Division-like guitar work in it's second half, and it sounds a lot like "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad," or any number of other Depression-era folk songs about drifting or rambling through a bleak American frontier. Like a mesa on the distant horizon, the song seems emerges majestically from a wilderness of Finnesz-style drone--marking probably the only time I'll ever use Woody Guthrie and Finnesz as a point for comparison for the same individual song. This--like the #1 song on this list (no peeking!)--also succeeds because it could arguably qualify as a protest song, considering the socio-economic moment we find ourselves in. In folk music, "rambling" and "drifting" have a political dimension, and serve roughly the same purpose as, say mentions of boredom in a Black Flag song--they're the byproduct of a society that offers nothing but anomie, or a feeling of wandering normlessness. Lead singer Adam Granduciel has been rambling, and so have we all.

8.) Girls, "Alex" (From Father, Son, Holy Ghost)

Music shit its collective britches over Girls' second full-length, although there was little on the album that actually hooked me--their music is accomplished without being terribly ambitious, and maudlin without being all that psychologically deep. But Girls also produces songs that are meticulously crafted without being boring, a skill that similarly-lauded acts like Robyn or Vampire Weekend or even Saint Vincent simply haven't acquired yet. This song is a case in point. Everything about "Alex" just works. The whispered vocals, the anxious snare lines, that crisp, angsty guitar phrase that repeats and intensifies--together, they perfectly evoke that sense of tragically wasted adolescent longing that Girls is so obsessed with. Delivered in this perfect a package, a line like "Alex has blues eyes/Well who cares/No I don't" contains multitudes, and almost single-handedly refutes that bit about "psychological depth" from earlier in this paragraph.

7.) Tenariwen, "Tenere Taqqim Tossam" (from Tassili)

Tenariwn has been a sort of critical darling in the United States for nearly a decade now, and unlike Amadou and Miriam or The Very Best, they're largely uninterested in repackaging their sound for a western audience. Tassili is loaded with guest spots, but very little of the album is in English, and it doesn't stray far from the instrumentals and Taureg folk sounds of their previous work. There's something simultaneously refreshing and disappointing about this--Tenariwen clearly has the appeal and the ability to record an album specifically aimed at western listeners, but they don't seem to have the desire to. Even if their sound has evolved (the jams are shorter and their sound is softer and generally more acoustic on this one), it hasn't evolved in an identifiably western direction. The farthest they'll go is recording a collaboration with Kyp Malone and Tunde Adepimbe of TV on the Radio--and even then, hearing English on a Tenariwen album was slightly jarring, even if this track sounds nothing like TVOTR. It's like Tenariwen just sort of gave Tunde a couple lines to sing and played the song they had intended to play anyway. The result is overwhelming. "Oh Tennere/Oh jealous desert!" Tunde sings, while Tenariwen seems to paint the bleak, unforgiving beauty of the Tassili n'Ajjer with every rattling guitar stroke. I know that's the most Orientalist sentence I've ever written, but fuck it.

6.) Fucked Up, "Queen of Hearts" (From David Comes to Life)

David Comes to Life was almost doomed to fail, and when I first read that Fucked Up was making a rock opera about a man living in a depressed part of England during the Thatcher years, my response was a very natural "what the fuck is the most kick-ass rock band on earth doing?!?!?!" Of course The Chemistry of Common Life was a rock opera in its own right, a thunderous song cycle about the ineffable mystery of it all. But DCtL aspired to social and historical ambitions that were ill-matched to Fucked Up's particular set of talents--for some reason I'll trust Pink Eye if he's singing to me about the universe and the cosmos, but not when he's singing to me about Thatcherite social policy. Upon further reflection though, what better theme could there be for a rock album released in 2011 than the psychic effects of economic stagnation? DCtL was all about striving (and, for the most part) failing to keep your head above water in a society whose priorities and values are hopelessly fucked, and even if its length and general inconsistency kept it off my top-10 list, "Queen of Hearts" sums up FU's project in six jam-packed minutes. There's hope and frustration aplenty in this one, and the idea of Pink Eye sharing a duet with a children's choir is almost too brilliant for me to contemplate at the moment.

5.) Cut Copy, "Need You Now" (From Zonoscope)

Just how intellectually dishonest would I have to be to exclude this from the top five? Like, very, right? This song is just too fucking awesome, an "Umbrella"-like musical orgasm that just makes you question how much better a pop song could possibly, possibly get. I think part of this has to do with the fact that it sounds like a lost Depeche Mode track. Except fuck that, no it doesn't--the soaring vocals and tightly-laced synth lines give this one an energy that's all its own.

4.) Eleanor Friedberger, "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" (From Last Summer)

This year finally settled the question of which Friedberger is the weird one (it's Matt, by the way). Last Summer was a noxiously Brooklynian set about brunch, indie bookstores, The Park, and other shit that's just not terribly interesting to me at this point in my life. I guess she just wanted to make normal music about normal things after a ten-album run as half of the most ecstatically weird duo in rock, but Last Summer was a bit of a hit-or-miss affair, a sign that conventionality just doesn't suit Ms. Friedberger. Or does it? While most Fiery Furnaces songs are about Egyptian Grammar and the Borneo Telephone System and other shit I'll probably never encounter, "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" decidedly falls into the category of "we've all been there before," or at least into the category of "I've been there before." The chorus has a defiant quality about it: Eleanor will fall apart on you tonight in all likelihood, and normalcy and psychic harmony are sort of a vain hope for this one, as they are for Kirsten Dunst at the beginning of "Melancholia," for instance. But more to the point, this song is more generally about the anxiety of knowing you're about to disappoint someone, and I feel like Ellie is talking herself through an instantly-relatable crisis of nerves over the course of the song. Amazingly, she does it without the song becoming emotionally cumbersome--"IWFAOYT" is candid, but it's not heavy. In fact, this track is something of a banger, with a jangling piano line that's groovier than just about anything the often-danceable Arcade Fire's ever written.

3.) Tyler, The Creator, "Yonkers" (From Bastard)

The big complaint about Tyler, The Creator is that he wastes his just mindbloggling lyrical skills on songs about rape and killing homosexuals or raping homosexuals or whatever. It's not that his songs aren't substantive--it's just that their substance consists of over-the-top hate, paranoia and violence, and that he's shown little evidence of turning the corner and sort of like, reassessing what he's doing with his obviously-prodigious talents. This song vindicates that complaint and also turns it on its head. It's a statement song, a here-I-am-and-this-is-what-I'm-about track in the mold of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Lose Yourself" or "(Theme From) The Monkees." It's a bit of self-mythologizing or self-narrativizing, in other words, and the picture he paints of himself is fuck-you bleak. He's a motherfucking paradox, except no, he's not--when he says he wants to "stab Bruno Mars in his goddam asophogus," he's being 100% sincere. Maybe! This grows tiresome over the course of two albums, a half-dozen mixtapes, guest spots, concerts and 10,000-word New Yorker articles. But distilled to three-and-a-half minutes, it's the most assaulting lyrical performance of the year, a full portrait of Tyler in all his demented, undeniable brilliance.

2.) Frank Ocean, "Swim Good" (From Nostalgia, Ultra)

Why yes, two of my top 3 songs of the year are Odd Future songs. What of it? And while I'm asking rhetorical questions, has there ever been a song about suicide that's both as disturbing and as pleasurable as "Swim Good"? The chorus is increasingly ominous--five more miles til the road runs out, then one, then none, assumedly. He's got his black suit on, like he's ready for his own funeral--Frank has, in the parlance of a high school heath teacher, "made a plan," a plan that involves barreling off of Highway 1 in a Lincoln town car while wearing a fresh and expensive set of threads. If this plan has a certain poetry to it, so does the song, which is so pregnant with inevitability that the piercing and not-at-all reassuring keyboards that kick in during the chorus produce a feeling of catharsis. The song hangs the listener off of one psychological precipice after another, mixing darkness and catchiness in a way that's nearly impossible to shake.

1.) Woods, "Pushing Onlys" (From Sun and Shade)

I don't want to get too personal with this one, but fuck it.

The first time I heard this song was the same afternoon I learned that I hadn't gotten a journalism fellowship that I was foolishly counting on getting, and that I felt, at the time, at least, that I really deserved. I don't think I'd ever been more devastated, which says something about what a comfortable and relatively disaster-free life I'd had up till now, if it says anything at all. I was numbly going through the Forkast, barely paying attention to what I was doing, fast-forwarding in my mind to a week or so in the future, when the numbness would have subsided and I'd have the newfound ability to dispassionately take stock of where my life and career were actually heading--when this song came on.

Like #9 on this list, "Pushing Onlys" is about anomie, about the kind of existential aimlessness that arises when a society has failed to give its youngest and most promising participants a sense of meaning and purpose. One of the scariest things about the Occupy Wall Street movement--and a thing that accounts for much of the movement's success, I think--is that it's fueled by anomie, and by the sense that there are simply no options out there other than to reject the current system, full stop, even if that means taking yourself out of the game, condemning yourself to sleeping in a park and basically doing nothing that's conventionally productive. "Pushing Onlys" is the most honest and most harrowing evocation of Great Recession-period anomie I've ever heard, and it deserves to be a generational anthem, even if it won't be (Woods is definitely one of the top 10-15 bands working today, but how often are they discussed as such?). "I'm looking only to start another day," Jeremy Earl sings. "It feels right, it feels so right/But the time just slips away." The tragedy of anomie--and the tragedy of someone trying to find a sense of direction and a sense of purpose in 2011--is the tragedy of wasted time and false hopes. It feels so right to invest yourself in something, to start another day. But maybe this investment is a waste. Maybe the only option left is rejection.

Or there's the other option, an option that many of us have been forced to resort to at one point or another, i.e. working a shitty job for shitty pay and experiencing that non-Zuccottian sort of asceticism, by which I mean the uninvited kind: "I'm pushing onlys to waste the years away/These tattered clothes these same tattered clothes that pushed on past yesterday." Earl mentions the worst of fates--wasting the years away--as a kind of callous aside. Of course I'm wasting my years away. But what the fuck are you doing? Are you any better off?

I ask myself this question every time I listen to this song, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that it has succeeded in moving me to tears. Of course this song just sort of found me at the right moment, and I'll always associate "Pushing Onlys" with my own, sustained period of normlessness. But a lot of people are in a sustained period of normlessness, I think. No song released this year has so effectively summed up the desperation of the moment, or the desperation of every moment.

COMING MONDAY: The top 10 albums of 2011, the top 5 albums of 2010 (revised), the biggest disappointments of the year, and the best Ethio Jazz instrumentals of 1974.

Friday, December 2, 2011

How Much Does/Should Lars Von Trier's Sexism Matter?

I'm at the coffee shop, supposedly working on a job application. Fuck that; something's bothering me, and has been bothering me for awhile now, at least since that fateful evening back in high school when I decided it would be a bright idea to take a girl I had a crush on to see "Breaking the Waves" during a Lars Von Trier retrospective at the AFI. And it started bothering me again after seeing "Melancholia," which could be the greatest work of cerebral sci-fi since "Primer," a movie I blogged about a couple of posts ago.

That something is this: the sexual politics of Lars Von Trier's films are fucked. This is not a controversial statement, I don't think--after all, "Lars Von Trier is a sexist" returns 270,000 hits on Google. In "Breaking the Waves," poor Emily Watson (a far more accomplished actress than Emma Watson, I'll note) is raped (probably; it's been awhile since I've seen it) and exploited and abused, and sent ping-ponging from overweening male figure to overweening male figure as her humanity and personal agency are gradually sapped. "Dogville" was proof enough for me that "BTW" wasn't a commentary on phallocentrism so much as Von Trier working out his sexual neuroses on screen. In that movie, Nicole Kidman's character uses mass murder as a means of internalizing and coping with her own victimization--not exactly a model of empowered womanhood, I don't think. Finally, "Melancholia" can be read as a crude metaphor about feminine inability to deal with shit, with the destruction of the entire world serving as the manifestation of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourgh's failure to overcome their paralysis and psychic torment--a failure as inevitable as the cataclysm witnessed in the film's opening sequence. Remember that scene towards the end, when C. Gainsbourgh tries leaving the grounds of her estate with her kid, and it starts hailing and you get like 3 minutes of her getting pelted with golf-ball sized chunks of ice, looking totally helpless and anguished and defeated? Ah, I thought to myself. There's the LVT I know.

I'm of two minds about this. The first is that Emily Watson and Kirsten Dunst are consenting adults, and if they believed that LVT's sexism mattered, and if they believed that LVT was sexist, they wouldn't have agreed to work with him. They know him better than I do. And who's to say that LVT's sexism is really what it appears to be? You could even make the argument that LVT's woman issues are one of the more intriguing things about his work--that LVT realizes that he has an oftentimes-ugly sort of ambivalence towards the opposite sex, and that the powerlessness and exploitation of his female protagonists is part of a jarringly-personal exploration of the darker regions of his own psyche. LVT doesn't hide his sexism--he exposes it, and then examines and deconstructs it in front of the entire world. Maybe his work is actually self-lacerating, and maybe that's why Dunst, Bjork, et al agreed to work with him. Maybe sexism is just part of his art.

And even if he is a sexist, it's an unfortunate reality (and a reality that I'm hesitant to put in print, but here goes...) that bigotry is just one of those things you sometimes sorta need to look past. Wagner and Shakespeare, the Gods of their respective arts, were both anti-Semites, but this renders their work problematic rather than totally worthless. I've been rooting for the Washington Redskins my entire life. Not only do they have a racist name, but they were founded by a white supremacist; neither of these facts will make me stop rooting for them. The mature view on bigotry is that it exists and it's out there and you have be capable of recognizing it. But Shakespeare's anti-Semitism isn't central to his work, the Redskins have been integrated for almost 50 years and are the only team to win the Super Bowl with a black starting quarterback, and LVT is responsible for a few of the most intense and psychologically scarring (which is to say, effective) films ever made. A responsible viewer understands that there's a sexist element to Von Trier's work, while also understanding that his sexism hardly invalidates it. Maybe Dunst, Bjork et. al decided that LVT was a monster, but a monster who also happened to be one of the greatest artists of his time, in any medium--a monster worth working with, in other words.

On the other hand: what if Emily Watson decided that acting in an LVT film was worthwhile tradeoff--that the chance at a lead role in a prestige film by a prestige director wasn't something she could reasonably pass up, regardless of who that director was or what sort of situations he'd be putting her in? Similarly, what if Kirsten Dunst decided that an LVT film was her surest means of being taken seriously as an actress? I don't know if either actress had to wrestle with any personal misgivings about starring in films that feature the at-times pornographic subjugation of their characters. But if they had to overcome or even silence these misgivings in the name of their own careers ("BTW" was Watson's film debut, I'll note...)--well then isn't that a sort of exploitation?

I honestly don't know where I stand on this. LVT has a made a career out of degrading women on screen--out of using talented actresses to provide psychologically multi-faceted portrayals of women who seem to be prisoners of their own insurmountable feminine weakness (as well as prisoners of society, their husbands, small-town America, sexual naiveite, etc.). But he's also made a career out of making films with an uncanny ability to move and disturb. "BTW" or "Dogville" or "Melancholia" would be artistically worthless if they were pure exploitation porn. Instead, they're riveting and deeply personal investigations into what happens to people when society or depression or a killer near-earth object pushes them to the hitherto-unexplored outer limits of sanity and reason. I remain uneasy about liking his films as much as I do. But this is LVT we're talking about. So maybe that's the entire point.

Today's song has been stuck in my head for about 3 weeks:

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Law and Order" Is So Conservative It Makes Michael Savage Look Like John Rawls

Why am I even blogging about this. I'll admit this latest "Law and Order" rant originates with a pretty tense and potentially-explosive moment in the shower the other day (why do these moments always seem to happen in the shower?), when the girlfriend admitted that she had watched a couple episodes of "L&O" with a friend of hers, to which I replied, "Ugh I can't stand that show, for reasons I've probably shared with you like a hundred times by now," to which she replied, "well, what are they," to which I replied....well, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. It's just that it occurred to me, while simultaneously disputing and washing myself, that the case against "L&O" is about much more than television or artistic tastes, that "L&O"'s malignancy is rooted in things that matter like, a lot, and that its sustained popularity over the course of two decades and about a half-dozen spinoffs and iterations reveals something actually quite dark and terrifying about the state of American society. I didn't convince her that this was the case, but I was able to convince myself that this was the case, which is really all that matters for the purposes of this introductory paragraph. I became so convinced of my own rightness on this issue--so convinced that "L&O" is reactionary and authoritarian at its core, and that it both appeals to and exposes a reactionary and authoritarian strain in American culture and politics--that I now find myself writing a blog post as a result of it.

I want to say, first of all, that I haven't actually watched an episode of "L&O" for several years now, and few specific episode synopses or plot points are coming to mind right now. My anti-"L&O" brief won't be based on any specific, anecdotal evidence, but this hardly seems to matter: "L&O" is marked by its extremely repetitive and formulaic nature, and the structure of an "L&O" episode is so rigid, so codified, that the episodes are virtually identical.

In my own experience, as well as in my own cultural and individual vocabulary, repetition and sanctification are inextricably linked. Holidays and liturgies are repeated; the Torah is repeated once a year according to a reading calendar from which no Jewish sect, no matter how liberal, would ever dream of deviating. With prayer, repetition sanctifies: if you've ever witnessed a Hardei Jew driven to near-madness with kavanah during a Tuesday night Shemona Esrei, then you understand what I mean. Someone who only reads through Shemona Esrei a handful of times of year--someone like me, that is--is incapable of transcending the stilted and often quite-difficult reading of the words in front of him, and is therefore incapable of being driven to near-madness with kavanah while reading Shemona Esrei on a Tuesday night. In religion, the deepest regions of spirituality and mystical truth are often accessed through repetition, and "L&O" is quite possibly the most repetitive show ever made.

What exactly is "L&O" sanctifying? What is this nightly or, in some cases, hourly (my dad once remarked that it seemed like "L&O" was on TV virtually every second of the day) ritual of crime/investigation/red herring/arrest/trial/trial nearly bungled as a result of clever lawyering and/or technicalities/trial saved at the last minute/punishment meant to consecrate? The answer is fairly obvious, at least when you contrast "L&O" to a show that I'm guessing most people have completely forgotten about.

"Juvies" ran on MTV for what, like a season? Maybe it's still on? I don't know. It was probably one of the bravest things the channel has ever broadcast, and a reminder that MTV was once capable of displaying a surprising sense of responsibility towards the same youth culture it does so much to encourage and create, as well as degrade and destroy. Basically, "Juvies" was a jarring look at the criminal justice system, as told from the perspective of people who were roughly the same age as most MTV viewers (much in the same way that "16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom" is a jarring look at the pressures of motherhood and family life, as well as at what an unforgiving and difficult place the real world can be, as told through the perspective of people are roughly the same age as most MTV viewers).

"Juvies" allowed MTV viewers to witness simulacra of themselves--attractive, suburban, mostly upper middle-class teenagers with families and schools and aspirations in life--navigating the Byzantine corridors of American Justice and having a pretty rough time of it. They'd be arrested for extremely dumb shit, have all of their clothes confiscated, be forced to chill out for a couple days in a featureless, soulless building in which they're treated like human turds, and then go before a judge (and because "Juvies" was filmed at a single correctional facility, it was the same judge every single time) who wielded a highly arbitrary power-of-life-and-death over befuddled and often terrified high school kids whom she had never met before. I don't know if this was the producers' intent, but "Juvies" invited its audience to imagine themselves in a similarly Kafakaesque situation. It was, in its own way, a powerful example of dissident journalism, a reminder of how massive and fucked up and insurmountable The System can be, and is:

In contrast, "L&O" is all about how The System is always just and right and working in our very best interests. Every episode is a canned, fairy-tale rendering of authority in action; every conviction a semi-ritualized confirmation of the inherent rightness of the prevailing moral and social order. Hell, the word "order" even appears in the title. Law and Order, in this context, represent the triumph of the liberal, technocratic state over society's most intractable problems. The show invents monsters--rapists, mobsters, serial killers, psychopaths, child murderers, sex traffickers, terrorists, loners, losers, wife-beaters--and a small group of extremely intelligent and often-attractive people employed by the government slay them, every single time, one after another. My professor Ross Posnock (in the course of discussing The Sun Also Rises) once explained bullfighting as imperialism in miniature, as the ritualized assertion of the Spanish national will over not just nature, but over some monstrous and easily-victimized Other. "L&O" is the American version of bullfighting (or at least the American version of Ross Posnock's version of bullfighting). It's a vindication of The System, repeated again, and again, and again, with only cosmetic variation, with Sam Waterson as matador, and Jerry Orbach, Richard Belzer et al. as picadors.

My theory for why this spectacle had endured for two decades, 456 episodes and about a half-dozen spinoffs actually contradicts the title of this post. "L&O" is appealing partly because it appeals to the very worst aspects of liberalism and conservativsm both: for the right, it proves that the system is working and that everything is A-OK; for the left, it validates a positivist, utopian notion of liberalism, wherein power is inordinately capable of remedying society's deepest and scariest ills. The idea of empowering a privilaged and in many ways extra-legal interest group to arrest, beat and even kill any minority (or, in many cases, non-minority) they please while prohibiting the rest of us from smoking a harmless herb or drinking wine in parks, is an outrgorwth of the positivist, utopian, power-can-solve-our-problems-if-we-could-just-be-subjected-t0-enough-of-it school of liberalism. Ruddy Guilliani or hell, Barack Obama are both exemplars of this strain of liberalism, to which the Foucaldian idea that Order results not from power, but from a network of socially and historically-informed (and therefore non-consensual) power relationships, is fundamentally opposed. "L&O" occupies a weird political middle ground. "L&O" is reactionary because it kashers and justifies The System, but oddly forward-thinking, since The System--which is portrayed as being freakishly highly-functioning--is itself the logical endpoint of liberal social management.

We, as a society, want badly to believe that the liberal-conservative compromise that "L&O" has drilled into millions of heads hundreds of millions of times is a good and worthwhile one. While "The X-Files" is all about one man's seemingly-delusional insistence that The System is one huge, monstrous lie, "L&O" is about assuaging everyone's--yours, mine, everyone's--discomfort with it. And as Mulder demonstrated, it's much easier to just passively accept things than to consider how profoundly fucked up they may be. To consider that the American justice system is based more on perverse institutional incentives rather than serving the public interest (see Wire, The), that drugs maybe shouldn't be like, illegal (see Wire, The), that The System in its current form is fairly racist (see Wire, The, and this), that America has a massive prison population and that, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court, many of the members of said population are horribly mistreated--bro, that's some heavy shit. I mean, who wants to think about all that shit? Thinking about shit isn't like, entertaining. Why go to bed troubled, when you can watch Waterson and Co. in full, beast-slaying mode?

What really bothers me about "L&O" is that it ingrains (and even ritualizes!) the popular avoidance of unpleasant truths. It's a slickly-produced, highly entertaining palliative that's also meant to distract from the systemic problems in the American justice system, while also subtly arguing that these problems aren't important and maybe don't even exist. In a fairer, more humane America, such a show will, like minstrelry or Birth of a Nation or Toby Keith's "Boot in Your Ass," be considered a embarrassing relic of a misguided era and its under-evolved cultural values, rather than an enduring source of entertainment.


Last night I caught a few snippets of the Caps-Blues game, and fuck was it strange to see someone other than Bruce Boudreau standing behind the Washington bench. Boudreau was an institution in Washington, that rare sports figure whose out-sized persona was suited to his actual coaching/playing ability. Is there anyone in the past decade of DC sports who matches him in this respect? Gil arguably does, although his tenure in the Nation's Capital ended on far worse terms than Boudreau's--bad enough, I'd say, to taint his entire legacy in this town (well, that town. I'm writing this in New York). LaVar Arrington's current media career distracts from the fact that he wasn't even the most flamboyant or outspoken player on his own team (Fred Smoot wins that distinction). Steve Spurrier--folksy, idiomatic, and like, painfully obviously out of his depth during his brief tenure with the Redskins--was like a walking cartoon character, but could only coach the team to two mediocre seasons. Jim Riggleman, meanwhile, is arguably the most mediocre manager in the history of baseball, although his spectacular kiss-off of an exit (after a win!) ensures he'll be remembered much longer than Manny Acta.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a legend has passed from the scene. The Falstaffian Mr. Boudreau, the youngest (and undoubtedly most profane) hairless blob ever to reach 200 NHL victories, married skill and temperament in a way DC hasn't seen for awhile, and might not see for awhile yet--at least until he shows up behind the Hurricanes' bench the next time they visit the Verizon Center.


My next post will probably be in about two weeks, and will definitely be a end-of-year music blowout, including top 10 lists and superlatives and other such nonsense.

This song won't be on my top 10 tracks list, since it came out like two years ago: