As a supplement to this week’s “Favorite Music of 2012” podcast, we’ll be posting top 10 album lists from all four participants over the course of the day. I guess I’m up first.
Album That Takes Me Back to High School Days
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
The Japandroids have popped up on a few podcasts this year, mainly because they fucking rock. This album hits a sweet spot for me, taking me back to Bay City days, driving around, drinking and smoking, and yelling, but in a happy, non-rage against the machine way. Almost every song on this album just feels good. “Younger Us” perfectly sums this up in its nostalgic pull—“Remember that night when you were already in bed, said ‘fuck it!’ got up to drink with me instead”—while acknowledging this happened in days past. My personal favorite song from this album is Continuous Thunder, because I find it kind of romantic in a dirty, silly high school way, with lyrics like, “You took my hand, through the cold pissing rain, dressed to the nines, arm in arm with me tonight.” Well, OK, not romantic, but sort of crushed out.
Favorite Instrumental Dance Rock Album
El Ten Eleven, Transitions
On a totally different trip, I absolutely love this El Ten Eleven album for being just like all the other El Ten Eleven albums—catchy, layered, danceable in a spastic hipster sort of way, and tight as shit. I’ve seen these guys live a couple of times—and by “guys” I mean two people playing drums and a double-necked guitar hooked up to a literal crapton of pedals—and it’s an amazing, all encompassing experience. So yeah, although they haven’t progressed so to speak, this may be the most complete album of theirs in years, and definitely worth listening to. Especially No One Even Died This Time!
Interlude: As I’m typing this up, I’m realizing there are a couple of themes running throughout my list—performers I saw live, and very layered music. Aside from the Japandroids and maybe Yellow Ostrich, the albums I most liked this year featured music that borders on the overstuffed. Songs you can’t quite take in all at once on the first listen, but that reveal their structures best on headphones, late at night, as you pull apart the various instruments and flourishes.
Coolest Rap Album
El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
Granted, this is a rap album, and the rapping El-P does on Request Denied is blisteringly awesome, but the thing I really dig about Cancer 4 Cure is the epic instrumentation that underlies each track. El-P isn’t just a rapper—his High Water album (which we talk about on the podcast) is a testament to his versatility as a producer and musician. So, although some tracks on this album fall prey to the trappings of a “traditional” rap album, there’s a quality and awareness that pushes it to another level. An instrumental version of this would be brilliant. (There is an instrumental version of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, another masterpiece of his.)
Favorite Album from an Icelandic Band
Múm, Early Birds
Múm is so damn sweet. Although their best album, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, has a really dark undercurrent—“Guilty Rocks” and even “Blessed Brambles” have a longing to them that can be almost unsettling—Múm is very much in their element when they’re rocking the childish joy sorts of songs that populate Early Birds, a collection of a lot of their previously unreleased tracks. Iceland is totally baller when it comes to producing great music—Sugarcubes to Of Monsters and Men—but I’ve always had a sweet spot for this particular band and the way they approach the idea of producing post-pop infectious and happy-making music. And this really is a totally Chad sort of album. “Experimental,” yet not totally off-putting. And sweetly complex.
Favorite Album from a Band with a Symbol for a Name
∆ (Alt-J), An Awesome Wave
Interlude: I listen to way too much new music. Every week, I create a playlist of new albums that are coming out, listen to them a couple of times, and move the ones I like to a “20XX” playlist. The one for 2012 has 1,313 tracks on it. I feel like as a result of this, I’m much more accepting of all sorts of types of music. I’ve been using streaming services for 12 years now (first Rhapsody, now Spotify), and as a result of thinking of music as “legally free,” I’m not nearly as pissed when an album is sub-par (looking at you, Titus Andronicus), as when I was in college in the pre-Napster era and spent $15 on a CD. Wonder what it would be like if something like this existed for books. Because yes, I am still irked that I pissed away $20+ on J-Franz’s Freedom. I FEEL CHEATED BY YOUR SHITTY AESTHETIC, FRANZEN.
Album That Makes Me Bounce and Sway
Fang Island, Major
Holy sweet Jesus does Fang Island write some catchy songs. Their self-titled, sophomore album is one of the most addictive listens of recent years. It’s so WAAAHHHH-WEEEE-OOOOHHHH happy and energetic. I don’t think it’s possible to dislike this album. Unless you’re one of those people who likes “Call Me Maybe,” in which case your soul has no right to happiness. The difference between Fang Island and Major is that in Major, the catchiness comes from the vocal melodies and phrasings, rather than the guitar riffs. Initially, this made me feel a bit tepid about this album. (I mean, it opens with “Kindergarten,” which is almost a piano ballad, although one with a really off-kilter rhythm.) But as time went on, and as I listened to this all summer while riding my bike, I decided that it’s sort of perfect in its harmonic addictiveness. Or whatever. Especially Sisterly. (So, when searching the YouTube for that link, I found this Sims 2 soap opera. I had no idea that Sims could bang! What. The. Shit.)
Favorite Electronic Album
Yppah, Eighty One
I was a big fan of Yppah (which is “happy” spelled backwards, which is sort of lame, I admit) when They Know What Ghost Know came out, but this album is by far my favorite. I love these sorts of blissed out, electronic songs that drift and drift. And Anomie Belle’s voice is awesome. Reminds me a bit of Bonobo, although less jarring and more coastal. Going back to my first interlude, this is one of those “waves of sounds” albums that appeals to me because it is so layered, with immediate hooks to grab onto backed up by a greater musical depth filled with subtleties and very charming moments. (My prose is getting as purple as the wine I’m drinking as I write this . . . Sorry.) Anyway, check out this song to get a sense of what I mean. (Also: violin love. Another theme of 2012 for me.)
Favorite Comeback Album
I might be lying, but I’m 99% sure that Menomena’s I Am the Fun Blame Monster! was the last physical CD that I purchased. I had to order it from CDNow or some such shit, since it wasn’t widely distributed. And I bought it based on the fact that they created their own computer program (Deeler) to produce their songs. That album blew me away—the songs and the physical package. (The physical album features one of those flip-books that simulate cartoon motion and totally bring back my childhood.) Anyway, aside from the song “Muscle’n Flo,” which I refer to as my “old man song,” I haven’t loved the albums between I Am the Fun Blame Monster! and Moms. But holy and fuck does Moms rock. It’s as sonically unique as their early work, but a bit more mature and polished. Hearkening back to Interlude #1, I saw them live in Toronto, and although the acoustics in that club were about as awful as they could be, it was still super entertaining. I love most songs on this album, but if I have to pick just one, it would be Baton for the lyric “I wish that wrecking fantasies could pass for a career.”
Interlude: Before I get to my favorite album of the year—I LOVE YOU, DAN DEACON—I want to revisit that last interlude. I think this over-listening (if that’s the term) and “free music” concept has made me more accepting of shit. I have two kids who are 9 and 5 and who make me play Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” on the Spotify over and over again. (That and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which is total trash, and, like “Call Me Maybe,” makes you dumber every time you hear it.) Initially I was all, “Taylor Swift must be stopped!”: but then I found myself humming this in the shower. And coming up with new dance moves to show the kids. Dance moves to this and “Party in the U.S.A.” and the Gaga and all the other slutty pop songs that they want to hear ad infinitum, like bad top 40 radio DJs. What has happened to me!?!? I wanted to raise my children on Sonic Youth and the Throwing Muses, but instead I’m starting to look forward to days when they’re here with me and they want to throw trashy dance parties. My avant-garde card should be revoked and burned.
Album that Best Represents What Goes on in My Brainspace
Dan Deacon, America
I think we can make this a permanent category for the Three Percent music podcast. Last year, I talked about how Snookered was an audio version of what the inside of my mind is like at all points in time, and his new album, America, is exactly the same. What’s awesome about America, aside from its layered brilliance and overarching catchy avant aesthetic, is the way it breaks down into two halves: the first five songs, which include Lots, which may be my song of the year, and “True Thrush” (see below), which may be my video of the year, and which is truly dance catchy and brilliantly energetic; and the last four songs, the so-called “USA Is a Monster” suite, which is also catchy and energetic, but is also really high-minded and ambitious and calls to mind classical music in its chord progressions and bombastic nature. And seeing Dan Deacon live? Fucking WOW. (Sorry Bromance Will, but godDAMN did that show rock.) He is most definitely my favorite musician for this part of my life.
Favorite Album from a Band I Saw Play in Buffalo
Yellow Ostrich, Strange Land
I probably should’ve ended with Dan Deacon, since now that I’ve written that, I’m not sure another glass of wine will get me nearly as pumped to pimp Yellow Ostrich . . . But I have had a year-long love affair with this band. I learned of them via Kaija Straumanis’s dad, who told Kaija Straumanis about them, who mentioned them to me because of their song WHALE (used on an earlier podcast), when we were in our Moby-Dick funmaking “Get to the WHALE!” phase of jokery. Coincidentally, they came out with a new album a month or so later, and played in Buffalo the night I got back from AWP. So the two of us went and saw a really amazing show. And much to my enjoyment, they were totally thrilled about the fact that we used one of their songs on our podcast . . . I really wish they were coming through again (they released a new EP a few weeks back), but the club they played at in Buffalo just closed down because Buffalo is the home of disappointment and sadness. (And Bills fans. Which is redundant, since all Bills fans are filled with disappointment and sadness. WHY DON’T YOU HIRE A COACH WHO ISN’T A BEARS REJECT AND HAS A REAL NAME? As Drew Magary once said, Buffalo is a place for eating too much and marrying someone you don’t love.) Anyway, there are lots of 8 out of 10 songs on Strange Land, including Marathon Runner and The Shakedown.
Final Interlude (which is more like a conclusion): Everyone likes different music. It’s weird—I’ve always found more agreement among my friends when we talked about TV shows we like (Archer! The League! LOST!) or movies or authors (Bolano + Beckett + Bernhard + Pynchon + Gaddis + Borges, so on and predictably forth), than I do when we talk about music. There are neurological reasons for this—the rhythms you’re attuned to create a positive feedback loop reinforcing the rhythms you’re attuned to, drawing you into your own little bubble of audio likes and dislikes—but there are also sociological aspects at play. There’s the whole “what do your friends listen to” aspect that defines your high school clique, but beyond that, there’s the aesthetic fragmentation brought about by the explosion of available music. Remember Camelot Music? Or Tower Records? Or Sam Goody? How insane does it seem that we—meaning EARLY 30-somethings like myself—used to buy all our tapes from places like this. Places with a few thousand options, which we explored tentatively, basing our ridiculous cassette purchases (cassettes! Available now only on Ebay!) on shit we heard on the radio or MTV (Downtown Julie Brown!) a bunch of times, or that our best-friend’s older brother recommend to us, and which we glommed onto with hopes of getting “street cred” with the girls we crushed all over. My youth was a series of Musical Mistakes. But nowadays, me, you, the kids of the nation, have access to basically everything, and radio is so earnestly fucked (suck on some arsenic, Clear Channel) that we are left to explore in much more far ranging ways than ever before. And without a high cost or a challenge. This is changing the musical landscape for the better in myriad ways. More music, more options, more diversity, more idiosyncrasy. So I like Yppah, Nate likes Brendan Benson, Kaija likes Instrumenti (pronounced in a Latvian way 99.99% won’t be able to imitate), and Will likes Kowloon Walled City. This might have held true back in 1993, but I’m not sure—I think we all would’ve had Rumpshaker on our lists. And it’s so GOOD that we have such a range of likes. And someday, someone will figure out how to do something like this for books. (Libraries are the place, but lack the right digital convenience and audience draw.) Suddenly it won’t be Fifty Shades of Fuck-All and Harry Potter and the Predictable Plot but four individuals with the same background and highly specific aesthetic differences. There are 250,000+ books published by traditional publishers, so why is Zadie Smith on every year end list? Sure, NW is probably fantastic (I don’t buy hardcovers, so I haven’t read it), but really? Everyone? You all want to agree on this? If the digital music world is the template for what’s happening to publishing in our day and age, then let it be so year-end-list wise as well. DIVERSIFY IN 2013.
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .