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.