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MY FAVORITE AKA THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011

Robag Wruhme - Wuppdeckmischmampflow

1. Robag Wruhme – Wuppdeckmischmampflow

Robag also released a full-length LP of original compositions in 2011, but it was this DJ mix that struck me as easily the most gorgeous piece of music I heard last year. It’s an hour-long, sit-at-home headphones album, masterfully arranged in a continuous effusion of atmospheric minimalism, lush swells, and deep house bangers. Yeah.

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo

2. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo (Spotify)

Swirling, psychedelic acoustic guitar riffs underneath plaintive lyrical ruminations that trail off into a heroin coma (“Society is my friend / It makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath / Ohh, society / Ohh, yeah” and “I get sick of just about everyone / And I hide in my baby’s arms / Hide in my baby’s arms / ‘Cause except for her / You know, as I’ve implied. . .”)—what’s not to love? Kurt Vile’s slurred, muttering vocal is calm and believable, and his guitar riffs are simple and prodigious. I love singing along to the blissfully downbeat “On Tour”, which starts, “On tour / Lord of the Flies / Aw hey, who cares? / What’s a guitar?” Makes me feel like I’ve been drinking whiskey, bumping across America.

Bright Eyes - The People's Key

3. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Spotify)

Pitchfork panned this album for being “a wildly spiritual record without any spirit,” claiming that “it doesn’t articulate much at all.” For their strength in waxing omniscient in a structuralist approach to reviewing new music, Pitchfork tends to focus their reviews on ‘the band’ as performance art rather than letting the music speak. In the process, they are prone to missing large swaths of emotional appeal. Don’t be fooled—this is the real, modern American folk music. It’s poppy and synthesized, up-tempo with a low-fi sensibility; the album’s concepts are strung haphazardly-but-coherently together with Conor Oberst’s trademark lyrical acrobatics. The album is rife with spirituality. Bright Eyes pads songs articulating Buddhist, Judeo-Christian, Rastafarian, and pagan traditions with ‘found sound’-style, barely-intelligible ramblings about ‘dimensions’, reptiles, and ‘frequencies’ that resolve beautifully at the end of the album:

“And you say, ‘No, we’re moving on and I hope I see you later where everybody’s okay.’ And that’s the human race. When there’s total enlightenment, there will be peace. The world will be in bliss when there’s total enlightenment. So enlightenment is knowledge—as much knowledge as you can get people to seek and understand, ya know, and it’s mankind. It’s me, it’s you, it’s us that do it. But we have to call it to align. We say, ‘Look, I’m not gonna kick that guy’s ass, that happened ten years ago, I wish him well.’ That’s love, ya know, and compassion. Or, uhh. . . what do you call it? . . . (mercy?) . . . what’s that? . . . (mercy?) . . . mercy.”

There’s no tidy moral in this exploration of humanity, belief, and meaning, though the album’s brilliant closer, “One For You, One For Me”, comes close. It’s a poetic catalog of moral dichotomies that ends, “You and me, you and me / That is an awful lie / It’s I and I.” This album could probably withstand an academic criticism, but the messages about the search for meaning and connection are vividly apparent (and it’s catchy as hell).

Real Estate - Days

4. Real Estate – Days (Spotify)

I love this album through and through. It’s fantastically breezy where the last album was bluesy, and the guitar interplay is such a treat to the ears.

I just saw them in Boston, though, and I was pretty perplexed. Like a question from the comments section of one of their YouTube videos asks, “Why are they all dressed like Stephen King 30 years ago?” They give off a strong vibe, and it’s really tough to tell how serious they are about the band’s image (which is—nerdy and sensitive? Pensive on percocet?). You could hear by how tightly they played that they’ve been touring nonstop since this album came out. At their best, they sounded like a more bluesy, psychedelic version of early Death Cab (early being, of course, the best variety of Death Cab). Check out the song “Municipality” off of this record and see if you can’t hear it. But unlike Death Cab, they didn’t have the punch to pull off their more upbeat songs convincingly. They seemed bored/boring and pretty emotionless during the upbeat songs, which broke me out of my jangly guitar reverie long enough to seriously wonder whether or not the band members are assholes.

Don’t get me wrong—when Real Estate hit a groove (usually while playing songs off their first record, during which the vocalist would really emote), they hit it hard. But when they weren’t in a ballad or a long jam, I felt like I was watching them rehearse. The band relies on texture, and it didn’t help their cause that the mix was nothing like their studio sound. The guitar levels didn’t complement each other, the vocals were way in the front of the mix. . . Now that the band is selling out shows, they can afford to hire a sound tech!

A few songs from this album, “All the Same”, and especially “Out of Tune” came across really well live. “Kinder Blumen”, my favorite track on the album, was pretty good even though the tempo was much faster than the album version. They played a new song that sounded like an indie pop masterpiece. Can’t wait to hear that again. After another year of touring, when they figure out how to translate their studio mood into live acoustics, Real Estate is going to rule their scene.

Destroyer - Kaputt

5. Destroyer – Kaputt (Spotify)

Even though Daniel Bejar is Canadian, this album sounds like everything I hate about New York. It feels seedily sensual, indulgent, pretentious, and, in spite of (because of?) all that, beautiful. This album is hauntingly human. I listened to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” on repeat until it literally brought me to tears. (That song is about three minutes too long on the tail end, but that’s forgivable in light of the perfect intro.) From the driving bass line on “Chinatown” to the lamenting drones of “Bay of Pigs”, this is incredible music. The album’s one unforgivable stumble: the female background vocals are absolutely terrible!

Washed Out - Within and Without

6. Washed Out – Within and Without (Spotify)

It’s like a baby pops ex utero and immediately throws a dance party for all his baby friends. Womb-like reverb, perpetually-driving snare heartbeat, in awe of the wonder of the world, maybe a little sad because it’s so cold out here. Look at the album title (and cover)—pretty sure I’m on to something.

The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient

7. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient (Spotify)

Bob Dylan with a shoegaze aesthetic?

The Radio Dept. - Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010

8. The Radio Dept. – Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 (Spotify)

It’s The Radio Dept., so it’s on my list.

Bon Iver - Bon Iver

9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Spotify)

I can’t believe Bon Iver put out another good album. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is the most emotionally-compelling album I’ve ever heard—I listened daily, on repeat, for at least three months—but it seemed like an anomaly. Justin Vernon can’t really sing, and I wasn’t exactly excited for him to release new music after his rapid rise to stardom and the subsequent weak feature (“Monster”) and thematic sellout (“Lost In The World”) on Kanye’s album. But this is a good album. Maybe not a great album, but it’s really good. I don’t need to write much here because you’ve heard it, and it’s on everyone else’s year-end ‘best of’ lists. A testament, I think, to Vernon’s artistic integrity (I guess, really, who would have said no to Kanye? or a fat check from Bushmills?).

The lyrics are even more fragmented and nonsensical than “For Emma”, and though I like the tone of Vernon’s voice arranged with his beautiful music, I still wish it meant something more direct when he sings, “I could see for miles, miles, miles. . .” on “Holocene”. The mood feels familiar, but I can’t tie it to something meaningful. Reliance on the poetics of lyrical sound can get a little iffy for me when it’s more pattern than variation. So I’m not really sure what Bon Iver is expressing on this album. Meaningful subtlety is great (e.g., to toss an heirloom apple up against a GMO orange, I’d validate Kurt Vile asking, “Aw hey, who cares? / What’s a guitar?” over Lady Gaga’s proclamation, “I’m as free as my hair / I am my hair”), but the metaphors are so fragmented in songs like “Minnesota, WI” that I’m not buying it. Man up on your songwriting, Bon Iver.

There was an 80s vibe moving through some of the critically-acclaimed music of the past couple years. I keep waiting for the circle to really come back around to the early 90s shoegaze/dream pop sound that I like a lot. I spent a good part of 2011 going back to bands like Slowdive, Mazzy Star, The Sundays, My Bloody Valentine, Starflyer 59, and Cocteau Twins, thinking about how nice it would all sound with modern production. Anyone want to start a band?

1 Comment

  • JA × 01.27.12

    Well done. Hey, let’s start that band.

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CHOICES

Do you ever feel burdened by the immensity of knowable things?

Weird way to start a blog, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed thinking about how we can spend our lives studying any subject without ever knowing its fullness—without even grasping the fullness of what’s knowable. That incomprehensible vastness of existence and its innumerable bits of information leads me to search for what is worth knowing.

Worth is a capricious word, but bear with me.

I want to make good choices in life, the kind of choices that increase in personal value with the passing of time. Choices that make good sense for us in the here and now, but that we come to value even more as life goes on—to live slow and die old. It seems that to make good choices, we need some situational knowledge about the decision at hand. But how much and what quality of knowledge is enough to make good decisions? Is there an objective value to having knowledge in the first place?

I don’t know, but I hope you agree that honesty is valuable. I believe honesty wants directness and is more fully understood through context, nuance, and when presented precisely.

Through this blog, I want to explore Western culture honestly. (I think of culture as a collection of human now-ness in time and space.) I am interested in the kind of culture that moves assiduously forward. But forward into what? I really like the Latin word proficiens, which represents an idea from the Stoics.¹ They desired perfection in wisdom and virtue, but finding it arrogant to assume achievement of such status, branded themselves as “in training.” Proficiens means “trying to achieve being wise,” or, more literally, “going places.” I like the definition “making progress.” If we can’t know everything (and of course we can’t), let us at least be found to be making progress. And not with some busy carpe diem New Year’s resolution, but through the intentional dismantling, evisceration, and substantiation of both the mundane and our deepest-held truths.

Will we find that we have, in fact, progressed since the ancients?
(This is also a blog about technology.)

We are far too quick to accept what is handed to us without considering the cost. The advance of human culture and its Frankenstein’s monster, the wires and silicon into which we attempt to imbue our consciousness, shows no restraint. And really, why should it? Responsibility falls down to the smallest spheres of society, ending with the individual, to define value, to make choices, and to preserve a vital, thoughtful sense of beauty.

I’m saying we cannot assume our trajectory is upward. We are not along for a ride; we must not fall asleep watching television or collecting virtual friends, nor stitch our eyes open and charge toward the strobe of cultural ideals, arriving at old age with only a list of accomplishments and objects of status. Even so, there is no pride inherent in asceticism; balance comes through making good choices.

(This is also a blog about less weighty things—e.g. my reflections on being in a negligibly-successful Christian emo band; why Kanye West is a manchild who thoroughly squanders his artistic talent; and, because I sense you are dying for this information, my favorite smoothie recipes—but I wanted to first distinguish myself, for whatever audience arrives here in a stream of clicksciousness, from the glut of pageview-obsessed Internet writing.)

I want to think in words.
I want to cultivate a healthy anxiety about living.
I want to develop my own philosophy of technology.
I want to help orient the personal culture of those around me toward intentionality.
I want to become more teachable, more open to correction, and allow myself to be publicly wrong.

I know that the face value of self-improvement cannot be trusted—it’s a dangerous feedback loop. I want this blog to serve as a public egress for the judgments and ruminations of my inner voice, which tend to be cynical, systematic, and critical. In doing so I hope it sparks a conversation. Maybe we can relieve each other of the burden of knowable things, by sifting out what is valuable to she or he who would live an examined life.

Notes

1 Early Stoicism did not allow for a middle ground between vice and virtue, though it was later accepted that the proficiens could progress toward the ideal. Recommended reading (especially passages 16-18): Seneca’s 75th epistle to Lucilius

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