2011: Jennifer Kelly
This was the year I discovered CD recycling.
Somewhere in the decade or so that people have been sending promos to my house, the contents of those envelopes changed, at least in my head, from potential excitement (free CDs!) to more damned stuff. CDs ended up in piles on my kitchen counter, by the players and mostly in the bins and on the floor of my office. As the retail market for music disappeared, only a few of them (full-art, recognized artists) could be traded in. The rest accumulated. My house had always seemed adequate before…now it seemed likely to end up stuffed to the windows with CDs.
So, I made a deal with myself early last January. I’d buy a big external hard drive and rip everything to memory. I’d get rid of the physical CD immediately, unless I thought I could sell it. And because it was such a lot of plastic and metal and earth-unfriendly stuff, I’d send it all off, periodically, to a CD recycling plant in Salem, N.H. I even envisioned driving to the Sea Coast once or twice a year, car trunk stuffed with the music industry’s detritus, everything separated into discs and plastic packaging. (Though, as it turns out, you can mail CDs to recycling, fairly cheaply, via Media Mail.)
The main problem was that, once I’d committed to ripping something, I felt like I had to listen to it. Even eliminating four out of five promos right off, after 30 seconds or so of trial, I had more than I could get through. I dedicated one iPod and most of my drive-time listening to new stuff. I stopped listening to older records almost entirely. I managed to barely keep up with incoming, and maybe make a slight dent in the two overflowing bins in my office. It was sort of like the economy — things weren’t getting worse anymore, but progress was almost too slow to measure.
And, you know, I’d like to say that I found some cool stuff, self-releases and first-time records that everyone else ignored and turned out to be great. I’d like that, but the truth is the great stuff gets noticed. Most of the over-the-transom is in the vast grey space between not terrible and not very exciting. I found a few things — Brute Heart’s Middle Eastern-flared, art punk, Get Help’s spiky, what-the-hell take on mid-1980s college rock, Gabriel Miller Phillips’ eerie cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” — but there was a lot of so-so.
There was a fair amount of so-so in the records that didn’t come in the mail, the ones you have to ask for, even beg for because they’re so very, very important. I out and out hated PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, and thought that Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost had one really good song (“Vomit”), that reminded me of Pink Floyd. Wild Flag’s debut was fun enough if you forgot about how great Sleater-Kinney was. Bon Iver’s second album (the one that got all those Grammy nominations) kind of put me to sleep, though it may have been because I listened to it mostly with my son on 6 a.m. drives to school.
The best stuff I heard in 2011 tended to come from established non-mainstream channels, from labels I knew and artists I’d heard before. For instance, I see Thrill Jockey and In the Red twice in my top 10 list, Sub Pop a couple times in the larger 20. David Kilgour gets yet another berth in my year-end favorites, as do the ever-entertaining Dirtbombs. There are not a lot of surprises. And maybe that means the system is working, that the best music (along with a lot of dreck — c’mon Youth Lagoon, really?) gets flagged, that nothing is wholly slept-on anymore. Last year was the first time ever that my Pazz & Jop list didn’t have a single album no one else picked. There are no secret pleasures in the age of Mediafire.
So with that, I offer 10 records that are no particular secret, but that made listening to the other 400 or so worthwhile.
Wolfroy sounds traditional and hushed, full of soft harmonies and whispery guitar licks, but its sentiments are bracing and singed with doubt. Angel Olsen, Oldham’s backing singer, slips to the front in the album’s prettiest moments, singing shape note refrains and country counterparts and generally injecting light and hope into darkening scenarios. Listen to “New Whaling Song,” where Oldham mourns youth and lost possibilities, while Olsen trills, “So far and here we are,” in the softest most spiritually reassuring way.
On the surface, this is brutally simple garage rock, undergirded by hard, unvarying drum lines and short, unmodulated guitar riffs…but underneath, Homo seethes with complications, paranoia, outsider oddity. My favorite track, “Inner North,” describes Melbourne’s arty suburbs with unseemly enthusiasm, nose pressed right to the glass with longing, but I think, here and elsewhere, they’ve having us on.
Yet another of Mali’s endless supply of desert bluesmen, Toure gathered a half dozen or so friends in his sister’s house to make a record that is stunningly precise and intricate, but also warmly casual. I caught his live show last fall and admired the beautiful complexity of the interplay between his guitar and traditional instruments kuntigui and kurbu, percussive without drums.
I’ve listened to this album more than any other from 2011, partly because it came out so early, but also because it’s such a pleasure. I like “Death Rays” the best, its church organ drone cresting in giant waves of guitar, its slow development like some inscrutable natural process. There’s a lightness and tendency toward melody in the first half of the album that may offend hardcore “Glasgow Mega-Snake” partisans, but that’s been part of Mogwai’s art since at least Happy People, so you should probably get used to it.
One of the quieter entries on my list, this sparse, lovely debut from the Boston piano-voice-cello duo recalls early Low and the Phil Elverum/Julie Doiron Lost Wisdom project. Eerie, evocative and god-damned beautiful, it’s an album for considering missed connections, lost opportunities and the consequences of ordinary life. Yet rather than reinforce your sadness, Breakers‘ unearthly harmonies hint at hidden sources of comfort, angels, spiritual reassurance and transcendence of the here and now.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to — let alone review — a Dirtbombs album of Detroit techno covers. My bad. Mick Collins’ outfit breathes rough warmth into these pulsating oddities, his band’s indestructible organic-ness at odds with the chilled sensuality of tracks like “Sharevari” (considered the first-ever techno track), Derrick May’s “Strings of Life,” and Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind.” A companion piece to Ultraglide in Black, Party Store is a knowing, generous tribute to Collins’ hometown … and, like all Dirtbombs records, it’s raw and rousing and fun.
A fragile, lovely collaboration between a Scottish folksinger and a London electronic producer, this seven-song recording juxtaposes the most natural, homespun melodies against subtle electronic enhancements. Creosote is a prolific writer — these tunes are selected from a decade or more of recordings — but each song seems gem-like, polished and well considered.
Kilgour reconvenes the Heavy Eight for this denser, more rock version of his solo art, visiting past collaborations with New Zealand poet (and not Dusted co-founder) Sam Hunt and past melodic experiments like the “Which one of you is good right here “ fragment that first graced Feather in the Engine. As always, the magic reveals itself slowly, as songs that seem too simple at first become indelible over repeat listens. Kilgour has swallowed another bucket of words — and notes and melodies — and spit them out, once again, as wonderful, casually lovely pop songs.
A rush of adrenaline, this record, all white noise guitar distortion and scrambling, scrabbling drums, hurtling off, trailing jet streams to god knows where. I liked this Laddio Bollocko spin-off enough to dig out previous efforts, but this one’s the best, or at least the most intense. Even now, after a year to get acclimated, “N6” (yes, all the titles are this catchy) raises the hairs on my arms.
Daniel Higgs of Lungfish plays high priest over this driving, droning masterwork, a shaman on an elephant, riding through crashing, groaning, over-driven jungles of post-nuclear destruction. Sweden’s Skull Defekts establish an aura of dystopian menace early on, joining primitive drum cadences to hard, repetitive post-rock guitar grooves, but the partnership reaches its fullest realization at the end, in the devastating “Join the True,” a rock song for the year, the millennia and maybe for the end of the world.
10 More Good Ones
Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls (Slumberland)
By the way, if you want to start recycling your CDs – and if you’re a writer or DJ or anyone else who has too many, I hope you do – here’s a good place to start: http://cdrecyclingcenter.org.
By Jennifer Kelly