For reasons that will probably be clear as you read on, my number-one album this year is Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago.
It's always a pleasure to get to share my thoughts with you. Thanks as always for coming along for the ride.
And herewith, my notes on my favorite music in 2008. I've called the comp In Some Small Way We're All Traitors to Our Own Cause. Enjoy.
My year-end mixes are always baldly autobiographical/sentimental of course, but this time it feels moreso somehow. I'm enormously pleased with how it turned out and feel it's as even-handedly representative of my musical year as these things ever are/can be, yet when I look at the track listing, I flush a little to myself, feeling like I'm standing in front of the class in my underpants, trying to give a straight-faced book report on The Red Badge of Courage despite my goods being on display for all the world to see.
Truthfully, and probably tellingly, I resisted the prospect of choosing tracks for this comp when the time came around to do so. It was difficult for me to nail down a definitive listing, and I was constantly swapping in and out songs that seemed sexier or more like they "should" be on the mix. When I eventually settled on these 17, I was happy with the overall vibe and flow, yet felt like most of these songs were interchangeable with a handful of others that got seemingly arbitrarily jettisoned.
Yet the more I lived with the track list, the more I realized this batch solidified the way it did because all the songs feel intimately tied to very specific points along the continuum of this emotionally turbulent year for me. They may not be the hippest bangers off their respective albums, and their association with my life may be more cerebral than temporal/experiential, but a deep and definite connection is there for me nonetheless.
As I was beginning work on these notes, I transcribed into my notebook, as a kind of inspiration, guiding light, mantra, and gentle reminder, a quote from Carl Wilson's magnificent 33 1/3 offering Let's Talk About Love:
I'll do my best to uphold the noblest parts of that sentiment for you now. And if I fall short, at least there's the music--there's always the music.
1.) My Favorite Year--Destroyer
Once you break the surface of a Destroyer song, to say nothing of a Destroyer album, there's this wide open expanse on the other side, and you can just keep traveling deeper and farther into it if you choose to do so. The songs morph and twist and bend, becoming oracles, holy writ, pratfalls, piss-takes, and all of these simultaneously sometimes. It's this both/and quality in the music that I find so terribly appealing--Dan Bejar is both utterly serious and full of shit, and, on Trouble in Dreams especially, exposing the dark heart of the world while providing an ultimately illuminating aesthetic experience. The tension is irresistible, and, in this year that's seen so much fall apart, with the potential for so much redemption within our grasp, invigorating and instructive.
I listen to this song and hear within it, like peering into some kind of aural snowglobe, a collapsing of past and present as well as a strain toward growth that, despite best efforts and intentions, can't help but loop back on itself, wandering, homeless, vamping ad nauseum without progress or resolution. It's familiar but unsettling, rotted through at its core but all the more beautiful for the rift cleaved into its heart. Of course it also contains my favorite line in perhaps the whole of Destroyer's output, certainly my favorite line from any song this year, the line that gives this comp its name.
The whole point of everything may be the moving on, but I kept obsessively returning to this song. Some patterns you choose to repeat.
2.) Fools--The Dodos
I can still smell the damp, achy spring thaw hanging like misty condensation around the vibrations of the guitar strings in this song. I can still feel the dull thud of pavement in the soles of my feet with every floor tom beat down. I can still feel a confused and desperate romantic pinch in my heart with every one of Meric Long's ferocious yelps. What else can I say--the Dodos' Visiter was a singular soundtrack to my long walks around and through my city this spring. The album is a bit too long and betrays a still-young band's self-indulgence, but the sexy tribal heave of "Fools" does everything just right.
3.) After Hours—Caribou
I've, historically, not been known among close friends as a crier. So, one of the most unexpected, and, in some ways, welcome, developments of '08 was my transformation into, well, something of a basket case, frankly. Name an event, and chances are I've sobbed through it this year: movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and, in Caribou's case, laundry. Yep, Caribou made me cry doing laundry. It was the morning after their transcendent springtime concert, and as I sat watching my clothes tumble dry, I got to mulling, and then tearing up, over the previous night's events: the pastel wonderland the normally dark and scuzzy Empty Bottle became under the magical influence of the band's psychedelic projected backdrop and what a warm, welcome, enveloping setting it was, if only for a few hours, after an exaggeratedly pain-in-the-ass winter in Chicago; the musicians' genial ferocity as they tore through an inspired selection of songs from Andorra and The Milk of Human Kindness; and how thankful I was to be there to witness the phenomenal brilliance of the propulsive double drum attacks between sit-in drummer Ahmed Gallab and the polymusically gifted Dan Snaith. The exotic, weirdly circular drum pattern here always brings me back to that gray Saturday morning in April when I was overcome by the beauty of the remembrance of what had just passed and the sweet yet forlorn sadness that came with knowing I couldn't share my enthusiasm about it with one of the few people who ever would have truly understood and appreciated it.
4.) Cotillion Blues--White Rabbits
One of the most important things I did, both musically and creatively, this year was cover four of the five nights of the annual Tomorrow Never Knows festival for Daytrotter. It was my first time ever being on a guest list at the door (it's the little thrills, kittens) and it introduced me to a lot of the music that would come to define my 2008. I wasn't exactly bowled over by the White Rabbits' performance that weekend, but at least it led me to this track, which has brought me months of pleasure. Aside from the excitement of the slightly unhinged vocal performance, the sleazy/drunken horns, and the burlesque bounce of the drums (yes, I was a whore for beats this year, even more than usual), the thing that thrills me most about this song is the way it always makes me feel perhaps irrationally wistful for the days when everybody did the Stroll at weddings and other formal dances instead of the Electric Slide.
5.) Right as Rain--Adele
In some ways--OK, many ways--it's a bit embarrassing to be closing in on one's thirties and yet still be so acutely affected by an album called 19 because that's how old the singer was when she wrote the songs. And yet I found myself repeatedly drawn to Adele's debut this year, as much for the chance it gave me to wallow for a bit in its moony emotional landscape as for her tastefully dewy blue-eyed-soul crooning. Plus, despite her age, I really appreciated the remarkably insightful observation in this song that sometimes it's so much easier and more comfortable and even more exciting to embrace the feeling that you're totally alone and that the world's against you than it is to wait for the fleeting moments when everything's going right.
6.) Gardenia--Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Two minutes and 53 seconds of jangly indie rock perfection from one of the inventors of the genre. I just can't find anything not to love about this song, which in some ways is the flower pressed in the campaign journal in the rucksack, etc., etc., of Real Emotional Trash--a tiny, unexpected burst of color preserved with care and not a little poignancy in the midst of all the lengthy, discursive rockers.
7.) Cuddle Fuddle--Passion Pit
And sometimes, contra Adele, everything does go right in your life for a few brief moments. It's fall in the city, you're happy and having fun, and things are good. When I first heard this song, I described it as feeling like roller skating on the best acid trip ever. But no, it's walking, just walking, one foot in front of the other, but with a bounce in your step and your head in the clouds and a smile in your heart. When that last layer of bass finally kicks in at 2:03, it's sublime.
8.) Mess Your Hair Up--White Denim
Another Tomorrow Never Knows band. The American version (Exposion) of their first full-length finally came out at the end of this year, but, truthfully, I had so much more fun combing the internet for stray MP3s all spring after I nearly wore a hole in their 2007 EP Let's Talk About It. Equal parts goofy and snotty, this band yields itchy post-punk pleasure that surprises and delights me every moment that it doesn't just completely fall apart.
9.) Ramblin' (Wo)man--Cat Power
This is a slick, dusky, red-eye, cross-country flight of a song. It's somehow both otherworldly and supremely tactile, confident and apologetic, East Coast and West Coast, male and female, cover and original--name a duality and this track is stuck somewhere in the middle of it. This unsolvable/unresolvable quality is a large part of what, ultimately, left me cold on the album as a whole, but it's also probably what kept me coming back to this cut repeatedly all year. Sexy and lonely, chilled out and anxious . . .
10.) While You Wait for the Others--Grizzly Bear
I've never been the biggest Grizzly Bear fan, despite all the ways that their sound and sensibility seem tailor-made to appeal to me, but I find this song pretty captivating. I think it's something to do with the chord progressions leaning a little more toward '70s AM radio sunshine and Dan Rossen's vocals leaning a little bit away from the queer aesthete's languor that usually dominates Ed Droste's contributions. But, perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this song is the fact that it's actually weirdly difficult for me to pay attention to it, regardless of how many times I've listened to it. I constantly find myself getting lost in all that space, blissed out in some kind of four-and-a-half-minute meditative state. I hear the lyrics and the grand cymbal crashes and the warm blankets of woah-oh harmony, sure, yet I don't internalize them. They float past, leaving a pleasant bit of residue behind, but not much else. It's pop song as conduit for pure presence, less waiting for the others than it is waiting for Godot.
11.) Grapevine Fires--Death Cab for Cutie
This isn't the most immediately attention-grabbing or flashy song off DCFC's severely slept-upon and underrated Narrow Stairs, but its deceptive simplicity is the very thing that endeared it to me. Just listen to how ridiculously finely honed and efficient the songwriting is. Gibbard's got all these different strands woven together: the majestic terror of West Coast wildfires, a new and ambiguous relationship, and the kind of ephemeral sense of hope and peace that's usually impossible, and pointless, to try to articulate. As each detail is carefully unpacked, the song becomes like a tiny studio apartment, where every piece of furniture serves at least two or three separate functions with a beautifully seamless sense of minimalism. Much like profoundly deep love or natural disaster, hearing a gifted artist operating near the top of his game, like Gibbard is here, provokes a certain uncanny surrender to something that's simultaneously completely natural and existentially terrifying. The mind boggles.
12.) Doo Right--Man Man
Every time I think I know what my favorite line in this song is, I invariably find myself writing out all the lyrics to the whole damn thing. The hysterical romantic desperation here is deeply funny (think John Cusack howling "Charlie! You fucking bitch! Let's work it out!" in High Fidelity, but with less misogyny) and deeply touching. Man Man may be best known for their crazy circus arrangements and onstage antics, and lord knows I'd never change that about them now that I've seen how powerful their performances can be, but it's good to be reminded every once in a while what's always at the center of it: a man at the piano, exposing his voice and his wit and his heart for all the world to see.
13.) Cheap and Cheerful--The Kills
Now this is a pep squad rallying cry I can get behind. For me, when Alison Mosshart sings about being crazy or mean, it's really not about endorsing petty or hurtful behavior; it's a black-leather-pants way of saying "be true to yourself, even if it's ugly." I'm sure we've all had the experience of being with a person when she lets her mask slip a little bit. And it's glorious, isn't it? Finally hearing someone's true voice and not her cheap cheerfulness? Life's too short for bullshit, our time together too brief to waste on meaningless pleasantries and empty generalities.
14.) Golden Age--TV on the Radio
For all my bitching about how overrated I think Dear Science is, I haven't really given myself room to talk about how much I actually like the album and genuinely enjoy listening to it. It's full of many muscular and velveteen pleasures, rounded valleys and craggy edges and midnight blue depths giving way to occasional pastel washes of pulsing illumination. And "Golden Age" seems fairly emblematic of all these things, the warm beating heart of optimism in an otherwise angry and even cynical album. Plus, in my mind, I'll always think of it as "the Obama song," so it's hard for me not to feel incredibly enthused every time I hear it.
15.) Green Light--Jamie Lidell
When I find myself in moments of internal emotional crisis, especially when they're precipitated by my own lack of mental clarity rather than any genuine external stimulus, it's often helpful to step back and give myself permission to fall apart or be a little bad or follow some weird obsession or fixation to its logical conclusion if it speaks to a deeper part of my soul. Maybe it's lame and new agey, but as a kind of sister sentiment to the theme of "Cheap and Cheerful," this kind of "green light" can be a powerful tool to stop myself from continuing to lie to myself or trying to be something I'm not. Amusingly enough, this dramatic arc played itself out in miniature as I was trying to decide which Jamie Lidell song to feature on this mix. For months I was convinced it would be the Son Lux remix of "Little Bit of Feel Good" (aka "Just the Sound of Your Voice")--it was fun and funky and witty and would have provided a nice burst of energy. But when I started dragging and dropping tracks into a new "best of '08" playlist, my cursor instinctively reached for "Green Light." And that was that. There just wasn't any point in denying that, yes, this was the song I'd want to listen to on repeat for years to come. Between the emotional tenor of the lyrics and Jamie's sweet and soulful delivery of them--when something's right, it's just right.
16.) San Bernadino--The Mountain Goats
This song became something of a running joke in my own head this year: could I ever listen, I mean, truly listen, to it all the way through without crying? To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't happened yet. And it's not like there's one line that reliably triggers me every time (though "I pulled petals from my pocket / I loved you so much just then" usually can do the trick)--the story is just so well painted and evocative and powerfully performed that it's essentially capable of doing a control-alt-delete on whatever else may be happening around me at the time when it's playing, leaving me all alone with John's voice and Erik Friedlander's ridiculous cello and a quiver in my chin.
And speaking of John's voice, that may be the most startling talking point around Heretic Pride and the Satanic Messiah EP, if anyone were actually talking about it: it's old news by now to rave about his lyrics, but who'd ever have anticipated, post-Get Lonely, his transformation into such a warm, controlled, yet still heartbreakingly emotive vocalist?
17.) Re: Stacks--Bon Iver
Have you ever had to forgive yourself? Not for some dumbass thing you may have said or done while you were drunk or distracted, but for not having had enough compassion for the pain in your own heart? Bon Iver made a bridge for me with his music this year between a winter of darkness and a summertime of healing, and, standing in Union Park at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, listening to him play most of For Emma, Forever Ago at dusk, I was able to forgive myself in a way I don't think I've ever truly experienced before. Catharsis isn't even the word for it. I think it was actually something closer to the essence of what he means when he sings "your love will be safe with me," one of the most beautiful benedictions I could hope to leave you with. It's my sincere wish that you find an occasion to say that to someone, be it yourself or someone else dear to you, in 2009.
Honorable mention this year goes to the Walkmen's You and Me (esp. "Donde Esta la Playa"), Shearwater's Rook, Fuck Buttons' Street Horrrsing, the Raconteurs' Consolers of the Lonely, Estelle's "American Boy," King Khan and the Shrines' "Took My Lady to Dinner," the Sea and Cake's Car Alarm, Juana Molina's Un Dia, and Blitzen Trapper's Furr, not to mention the exciting new stuff put out by my local faves Aleks and the Drummer, Jeff Harms, Bound Stems, Baby Teeth, and King Sparrow.